LETTER – Governments should mirror COVID-19 information blueprint with daily updates regarding overdose crisis

Dear Editor,

In their May 3, letter (Governments should address toxic drug supply crisis in the same manner as their response to COVID-19 crisis), Jennifer and John Hedican outlined the inequality in our governments’ responses to the dual public health emergencies of the opioid crisis and COVID-19 pandemic.

The swift and effective interventions to address the COVID-19 pandemic are a hard pill to swallow for those of us who have been advocating over the past four years for urgent action to stop the needless overdoses resulting from a fentanyl-tainted drug supply.

Although reported less frequently and publicly than the COVID-19 statistics, an average of three fatal overdoses have occurred daily in British Columbia since April 2016. Statistically, British Columbians are more likely to know of someone who has overdosed or died from fentanyl-poisoning than who has contracted COVID-19.

I agree with the Hedicans that the lack of political will and unequal prioritization of populations has prevented swift and effective action to end the overdose crisis. Despite the resources and efforts directed at it to date, including easy access to naloxone, the overdose crisis continues without any signs of abating, taking too many lives and loved ones from their families.

For years now, front-line, medical, health, and political leaders, including Dr. Bonnie Henry, have been calling for drug decriminalization and a safe supply to reduce stigma and deaths. Federal drug policy has yet to be changed, but safe supply options have increased. Safe supply programs replace illicit and fentanyl-poisoned drugs with prescription alternatives of known source and strength such as hydromorphone a.k.a. Dilaudid. Individuals that are enrolled in safe supply programs attest to experiencing overall better health, increased safety, and stability.

Safe supply prescribing has expanded but is inconsistently available due to people’s and providers’ lack of familiarity. Greater demand for and individual uptake of this treatment option has the potential to effectively treat substance use and decrease preventable overdoses and deaths across the province.

Overdose prevention education and statistics reporting occurs widely within the mental health and substance using populations and support networks, however, this tactic is not enough.

We have all witnessed the positive impact of a widespread public health education campaign to flatten the COVID-19 transmission curve. It is time that our provincial, if not our federal government, raise the profile of the overdose crisis in a similar way by mobilizing the power of the general public. Mirroring the pandemic reporting, daily news reporting could include the number of overdoses, overdose deaths, and people newly enrolled in treatments. Daily public health messages could include the locations of the overdose alerts due to increased drug toxicity, reminders for overdose prevention and response, and information about treatment options including access to a safe supply. A more universal public education campaign has the potential to make conversations about overdose risk, prevention, and treatments as normalized and as commonplace as the current messaging to wash hands frequently, cover your cough, and keep physical distancing.

There will never be a vaccine to prevent overdoses however there are effective prevention measures and substance use treatments.

Unfortunately, that information does not seem to have reached the masses. We have relied heavily on naloxone to treat overdoses; however, it is now time to rely heavily on public education to prevent them.

Shanyn Simcoe, RN


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