In an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19 amid concerns of an “increasingly toxic” drug supply, the BC government has announced it will provide safe prescription drugs to substance users.
“We’re dealing with one public health emergency on top of another, and the challenges are unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” said Judy Darcy, BC’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions.
These dual public health emergencies “present unprecedented risks for vulnerable and at-risk people, including safely responding to overdoses related to the increasingly toxic drug supply and withdrawal for those who must self-isolate or quarantine to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” according to the province.
“Physical distancing is not easy when you are living in poverty, visiting a clinic every day to get your medicine, and relying on an unpredictable, illegal drug supply,” said Darcy.
To combat this issue, the province said new clinical guidelines are now in effect for healthcare providers. The guidance incorporates the federal government’s recent exemptions to the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
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The guidance supports people who are at risk of coronavirus infection, people who have a confirmed infection or a suspected case pending diagnosis, and people who have a history of substance use, including opioids, stimulants, alcohol, benzodiazepines, or tobacco.
It also outlines steps that prescribers, pharmacists, and care teams can take to support the provision of medications – including safe prescription alternatives to the illegal drug supply – to be delivered directly to patients, along with telemedicine for clinical assessments.
Finally, the guidelines indicate the use of prescription alternatives in addition to existing treatment options to prevent the risk associated with the toxic drug supply.
“This guidance will make it easier for at-risk people to meet the requirements of distancing while avoiding other serious risks to their health and to the health of the community,” said Darcy.
The move was applauded by Cheyenne Johnson, Co-Interim Executive Director, BC Centre on Substance Use.
“This response is urgently needed to support people who use substances, their families and health care providers,” said Johnson. “As the effects of the pandemic continue to unfold, the illicit drug supply is likely to become significantly more adulterated and toxic.”
This, coupled with directions to self-isolate “and risk potentially dangerous withdrawal as a result, [means] people who use substances are especially vulnerable to the harms of these dual health emergencies.”
The guidance was developed by the BC Centre on Substance Use with a provincial working group of addiction medicine clinicians and people with lived and living experience, and was reviewed by Ministry of Health, Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, Office of the Provincial Health Officer, and First Nations Health Authority.
It has also been reviewed by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of BC, College of Pharmacists of BC, and BC College of Nursing Professionals.