While the shortage of drug supplies on the street dwindles amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, addicts and recreational drug users are faced with unprecedented risks resulting in a growing number of fatal overdoses around the globe.

With the supply chain of international drug markets being dramatically transformed as movements are limited and opiates not being harvested in Afghanistan this season amidst the outbreak of the Novel Coronavirus, the World Health Organization (WHO) anticipates dealers will produce and distribute their own harmful drug alternatives, triggering a series of fatal overdoses.

The East Kootenay Addiction Services Society (EKASS) team has felt the rippling effects first-hand and has been receiving regular community feedback about the unexpected consequences as the global pandemic transforms the supply chain of the international drug market.

“Before COVID-19, there was a lot of uncertainty with the products people were buying,” said Dean Nicholson, EKASS executive director. “That’s when the supply chain was somewhat stable, but now it’s not, so it could easily be that much more complicated.”

He added the Interior Health Authority (IHA) has issued two public safety alerts in the East Kootenay region over the last three months due to drug users experiencing adverse reactions when they bought one substance, but were deceived and sold another.

“I think what’s out there now is pretty lethal,” said Deb Summers-Sims, EKASS harm reduction co-ordinator. “There have been overdoses where people survive, but there seems to be a lot more accidental overdoses happening right now.”

In fact, there’s currently an ongoing coroner’s investigation in a First Nations community of the Upper Columbia Valley regarding an alleged fatal overdose.

The Columbia Valley Local Health Authority has already responded to 19 overdoses in the last six months, resulting in a spike of B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) dispatching paramedics for overdoses and poisonings.

There were a total of 18 calls reporting overdoses in the Columbia Valley Local Health Authority during the whole of 2019, according to BCEHS.

In 2019, 24,166 overdoses and poisoning events were recorded in B.C. by the BCEHS paramedics.

Concerns about the financial aid provided through Canada’s Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program being abused by vulnerable populations coupled with provincial safety measures of COVID-19 urging citizens to self-isolate have lingered for some.

“One study I read was finding people over (the age of) 55 are drinking more now when they’ve never had a problem before, so I was surprised and I probably shouldn’t have been, but this reflects on how people are coping with isolation,” explained Summers-Sims. “Having to do that, and self-isolate, just puts them more at risk of developing an addiction, or worsening one that they may have already had. Loneliness is a strange thing. It’s an uncomfortable place for a lot of people to be.”

EKASS, which offers counselling services, harm reduction kits and community outreach programming for consumers, has two substance abuse counsellors available for teens and adults in Invermere. Their clients can pick-up naloxone kits, fentanyl test strips and, for those looking at recovery, there is an Opioid Agonist Therapy Program to receive Methadone or Suboxone to cope with the reality of withdrawals.

Royal Canadian Mounted Police Staff Sgt. Darren Kakuno indicated a dark purple, pebbly substance that contains highly toxic levels of fentanyl and benzodiazepines being sold in the Cranbrook area has sparked concerns for his team at the Columbia Valley detachment. He added prevention of drug use and trafficking would be high on the list of local priorities in the coming year.

However, the EKASS team noted practising harm reduction measures while physically distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic has been complex for EKASS clients.

Summers-Sims added, “the message was mixed for our people. We tell people to have a buddy system because they recognize using alone, they could die.”

She believes there hasn’t been heroin in the East Kootenay region for a long time, adding that EKASS clients often buy what they believe to be heroin only to experience adverse side effects of harmful alternatives.

Summers-Sims added the community doctors in the Columbia Valley should be praised for helping drug users access the Opioid Agonist Therapy Program rurally to encourage recovery and rehabilitation in their patients.

“That’s a good thing,” she said. “It helps people get off of street drugs and street opiates.”