B.C. Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy speaks to reporters at the B.C. legislature, Feb. 24, 2020. (Tom Fletcher/Black Press)

COLUMN: Helping those who use substances during the COVID-19 pandemic

B.C. Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy talks about both public health emergencies

By Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions

B.C. is currently in the midst of two major public health emergencies. The first is the on-going overdose crisis, and while overall death rates have started to come down, it continues to take a heart-breaking toll on families and communities across B.C. The second, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has drastically changed all our lives.

During this unprecedented time, it is critically important that we take extra care of each other, especially the most vulnerable people in our communities. We need to protect individual and community health and safety, and that includes protecting people who are at dual risk of COVID-19 and fentanyl poisoning.

If you are struggling with addiction, if you are homeless or under-housed, or if you have to visit a clinic or pharmacy to receive medications every single day, following Dr. Bonnie Henry’s orders on physical distancing or self-isolation can feel almost impossible. And with an increasingly toxic street drug supply, people who use drugs are at considerable risk during the pandemic.

That’s why, as soon as Health Canada provided exemptions under the Controlled Substances Act, the Province and the BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU) acted quickly to release new clinical guidance for physicians, nurse practitioners and pharmacists to help people experiencing the symptoms of withdrawal, and people at risk of overdose and/or at risk of COVID-19 infection.

ALSO READ: Mental Health, we’re in it together

Now, across the province, safe prescription alternatives to the unpredictable and toxic drug supply can be safely prescribed and delivered to those in greatest need. Importantly, this includes providing safer alternatives for people with addictions to alcohol, opioids, tobacco, stimulants, and benzodiazepines. While we are making access to safer prescription medications easier – through virtual care, flexible delivery by pharmacies, and other measures – we are also helping to flatten the curve of COVID-19.

The new provincial guidance is practical and evidence-informed. It is rooted in the fact that addiction is a health issue, not a moral failing – and that people living with addiction deserve the same dignity, respect and access to quality care as people living with any other health condition. The provincial guidance is about safety and health during two public health emergencies – period.

It takes courage to reach out and ask for help. But I want to encourage anyone who is facing these challenges, or knows someone who is, to talk to their health care provider. In order to benefit from the new guidance, people don’t need to have been accessing substance use treatment already. People living with addiction shouldn’t have to risk their lives to get the safe prescription medication they need.

In the coming months, we will continue to work hard to make life safer for people at risk as we navigate dual public health emergencies. No matter where you might be on your own journey – if you are accessing an overdose prevention service, or have just started on medication assisted treatment, or have been in recovery for many years – each person should be supported on their own unique pathway to healing and hope.

At this time of so much uncertainty – with a global pandemic on top of a fentanyl poisoning crisis – we need to look out for each other now more than ever.

We can’t afford to stop caring about one health care crisis as we stare down another.

To find out if the guidance could help you or a loved one, talk to your doctor or nurse practitioner, or call 811 to be directed to supports in your region. A summary of the guidance can be found at bccsu.ca/covid-19.

ALSO READ: A special report on mental health in Greater Victoria


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