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Ed Pickersgill, centre, seen on May 26, 2020, has been setting up boxes of food on a bench in downtown Guelph, Ont., for people in need.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

As the coronavirus swept across the country, plunging millions into lockdown, this Southern Ontario city was seeing a surge in another, more familiar killer. Six people died of suspected drug overdoses in just six weeks in April and May, a big number for a place that saw seven die from overdoses in all of last year. The city has seen nine die as of last Thursday from COVID-19.

In effect, Guelph is suffering from two epidemics at once. Though it’s hard to be certain about the cause of the overdose surge, the COVID-19 crisis is isolating drug users and making it harder for them to get help.

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It is a phenomenon that is being repeated in other communities as users are forced further into the shadows. Toronto had 25 fatal overdoses in April, the worst month for the city since September, 2017. British Columbia, which has seen the opioids crisis ease a little in the past couple of years, had 112 die from suspected overdose in March and 117 in April. It was the first time since the end of 2018 that the province had back-to-back months of over 100 deaths. Officials say it is too soon to know whether there is a link to the pandemic.

In Guelph, a city of 130,000 an hour’s drive west of Toronto, health officials have stepped up their warnings alerts since late April that dangerous drugs were going around and overdoses were spiking.

“Health Alert!! 17 overdoses, including 1 death, have been reported in the last week. We are in the middle of two health crises colliding,” officials of the Wellington Guelph Drug Strategy tweeted on May 7.

It said that 12 of the overdoses involved fentanyl, the potent synthetic opioid that causes most overdose deaths.

On May 13 it issued another warning, saying that three people had died within 36 hours of suspected overdoses. A local overdose-information system shows 55 overdoses overall in the eight weeks to May 20, fatal and otherwise. With another fatal one just recorded, Guelph is up to 11 deaths in 2020.

“We have seen an acute surge in overdoses in our community,” said Raechelle Devereaux, executive director of the Guelph Community Health Centre. These “co-occurring public-health emergencies” have made life even more dangerous for Guelph’s most vulnerable residents, she said.

With travel limited and the U.S. border closed, the local drug supply seems to be changing. Other drugs, such as cocaine or crystal methamphetamine, are costlier or harder to get, meaning users are more likely to use fentanyl.

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“Think of it as suddenly you couldn’t get wine anymore. Some would stop drinking wine and go get whiskey. What is available in Guelph is fentanyl,” Ms. Devereaux said.

News of the overdose wave has circulated around Guelph’s historic downtown, a hangout for the city’s most marginalized residents. Ed Pickersgill, who hands out donated food and other supplies from a sidewalk bench, knew some of the victims and posted their pictures on Facebook. He says at least two of them, both in their twenties, died at a downtown apartment building notorious for drug use. Along with the deaths, he is hearing of many other close calls – users who survived an overdose.

Mr. Pickersgill, seen here distributing donated supplies, knew some of the recent overdose victims.

Fred Lum

“It’s unsettling and it’s sad – very, very sad,” said Steven Kielec, 35, dropping by Mr. Pickersgill’s outpost, known simply as The Bench. “There are a lot of people in pain: mental pain, physical pain, spiritual pain.”

Health authorities say the precautions that come with the pandemic have made it tough for users to make use of the services they rely on. They can’t just walk into the local supervised-consumption site, where users can take their drugs with clean needles and someone on hand to revive them if they suffer an overdose. They have to wait to get checked by a masked, gowned staffer. It’s a big change for a service that strives to be casual and welcoming. The number of visits to the site is down from 30 to 40 a day before the pandemic to 10 or 12 now.

Darren Schweitzer, 47, says he used to visit daily to use his drugs. Now he barely makes it once a week. He says many people who are addicted to drugs won’t wait to use, even if it means only a brief stop at the door for health checks. “When you need it, you need it now,” he said. “You would rather go out behind a building somewhere and do it quick and get her done.”

Another local user, Matthew Delaney, 31, said that the advice to the general public in pandemic time – stay at home, don’t congregate with others – can be dangerous for drug users. Using alone is one of the major causes of overdose, because solo users have no one there to revive them or call for help if needed.

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Mr. Delaney says some locals who would normally use their drugs with others now use alone in their rooms or tents, sometimes succumbing to an overdose. “It could be days before they are even found.”

Mr. Pickersgill's outpost is known simply as The Bench.

Fred Lum

Advocates hope the recent deaths will force authorities to take the overdose crisis more seriously. The federal government says Canada had 14,700 opioid-related deaths between January, 2016 and September, 2019. That is about twice the number that have died from COVID-19 so far.

Dorothy Bakker, a doctor from Guelph who lost a son to an overdose, says that though she applauds governments for spending billions to fight the coronavirus, she implores them: “Don’t forget about the other epidemic that continues to rage and increase in Canada.”

She says authorities should give users access to a safe supply of drugs so they don’t have to rely on the risky, often-tainted drugs they get on the street.

Her son Stephen Emslie, a promising 25-year-old who was finishing a master’s degree in engineering, died in 2017 after struggling with cocaine addiction and bipolar mood disorder.

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