Statement from BCCSU on COVID-19

published on March 18, 2020

The declaration on March 17, 2020 of a public health emergency related to COVID-19 means that British Columbia is now facing two concurrent crises: one, the rapidly escalating spread of the novel coronavirus and another, the ongoing opioid overdose crisis.

Our responses to these two emergencies are not unrelated: people who use drugs may have other health issues, including compromised immune systems, making them more vulnerable to infection and more likely to experience poor, potentially deadly, outcomes related to infection.

Additionally, many people who use drugs face multiple social and structural challenges that compound these vulnerabilities and prohibit following best advice around social distancing, isolating and other measures. These challenges are related, but not limited, to precarious housing and homelessness, food insecurity, and unreliable income.

Supporting the health and safety of these individuals, their support networks, and frontline workers who provide essential services, is a critical concern. For instance, maintaining adequate access to essential medications (i.e. treatments for opioid use disorder) without interruption is of critical importance to reduce the risk of harms – including death – that can be associated with medication destabilization.

To mitigate some of these potential harms, the BC Centre on Substance Use has been working with provincial partners to ensure that those who are prescribed medications for opioid use disorder (called opioid agonist treatments, or OAT) can continue to access their medication during COVID-19. For example, immunocompromised patients and those who exhibit symptoms or are under quarantine or self-isolation may not be able to attend medical appointments or present to the pharmacy for their medication.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, there may be additional considerations for access that health care providers should be aware of. New guidance for prescribers and pharmacists has been developed to support clinicians in maintaining continuity of care for people with opioid use disorder. This guidance will be updated frequently as more information becomes available. We’re also working on resources for patients to help with their decision-making.

Additionally, we encourage people who use drugs to ensure they have an adequate amount of harm reduction supplies available, especially during potential incidences of extended isolation. Our friends with the Yale Program in Addiction Medicine, Global Health Justice Partnership, and Crackdown have developed guidance for people who use drugs on COVID-19.

We also continue to provide training and education to health care workers to support patients. These resources are all available online. Our clinical care guideline development work is ongoing and will continue uninterrupted, to ensure that all advice given is up-to-date and informed by the latest and best evidence.

While we’ve currently and temporarily suspended many of our research studies in order to protect our staff and research participants, we will continue analysis of data already collected and share findings to inform approaches to policy and practice.

These are incredibly challenging times, and we express solidarity with those who impacted by these twin public health emergencies – from people who use drugs to those who provide care. We are committed to being responsive to both of these emergencies.