Drugs in the form of powder and tablets, a spoon and a syringe on a black background mockup - stock photo

This Version Posted: July 16, 2020

Catherine MacDonald
Substances and Harm Reduction Coordinator
HKPR District Health Unit

As we make headway to slow the spread of COVID-19, another public health emergency continues to impact our communities. Opioid overdoses have long been a problem here and across Ontario even before COVID-19 arrived. In my work at the Health Unit, I’ve seen how the opioids crisis, especially through overdose deaths, has affected individuals, families and the community.   

Recently as we’ve taken important steps to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, opioid overdoses and deaths have increased across Ontario. This is due to many reasons. 

In responding to COVID-19, access to supports and services for people who use drugs has been limited. Physical distancing and social isolation may be necessary to slow COVID-19, but using substances alone increases the risk of overdose. Rising anxiety and depression due to the pandemic, as well as an increase in toxic drug supply, have also fueled the increase in overdoses.  

Harm reduction is a term that applies to any program, service or action that reduces the risk of injury and illness. If any of us have put on sunscreen or buckled up a seatbelt, we’ve embraced harm reduction. In the same way, harm reduction efforts geared to people who use substances also aim to reduce harm. It means meeting people where they’re at in their substance use and providing programs and services to help them enhance their skills and knowledge to live safer and healthier lives.  

That’s why we provide and encourage the use of naloxone kits to prevent overdoses. It’s why we distribute clean needles and equipment free-of-charge to individuals who inject and inhale drugs to prevent infection. Harm reduction provides people who use substances a choice of how they will reduce harm. It is non-judgmental and supportive, focusing on care and understanding. 

During COVID-19, harm reduction efforts continue to be a priority for the Health Unit and our community partners. During this pandemic, the Health Unit is still providing needle exchange and naloxone programs, as well as its opioid surveillance, early warning and local opioid response programs. Many other agencies have switched from in-person to phone and video supports, while others, such as harm reduction outreach workers, are increasing their presence in the community by providing face-to-face support to promote the health and safety of individuals and the community. Locally, we’re very fortunate to have many dedicated individuals and service providers continuing to support some of our most vulnerable citizens during COVID-19! 

Please support our harm reduction team and help us – especially now – address the opioid crisis in our community. Let’s work together, setting aside personal concerns and opinions, and treat people impacted by opioids with compassion and dignity. After all, we’re in this together!