“The patients we see are from all walks of life, across all cultures, races, levels of prosperity – overdoses are a great equalizer.” — JON GOGAN | STARS provincial director for Northern and Central Alberta operations
When our crew members are dispatched to a mission said to be “toxicological,” they know that’s medical speak for suspected overdose. Unfortunately, these types of missions have been happening more often at STARS recently. In the last six months, STARS has responded to twice as many drug ingestion and overdose missions than it did in the same timeframe last year. Is this increase related to the coronavirus pandemic? Many say yes.
“It’s not easy to prove the growing number of overdose missions is linked to COVID-19 but knowing that many people are experiencing life traumas because of the pandemic, the connection seems apparent,” said Jon Gogan, STARS provincial director for Northern and Central Alberta operations. “The patients we see are from all walks of life across all cultures, races, levels of prosperity – overdoses are a great equalizer.” Mental health issues related to COVID-19 restrictions such as physical distancing, shutdowns and uncertainty about the future, are prevalent. According to a study released by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) this fall, the pandemic’s health consequences extend well beyond COVID-19 itself and are wreaking havoc on Canadians suffering from mental illness, opioid addiction and other substance abuse problems.
Overdoses come in different forms including unintentional and premeditated – and have since well before COVID-19. When STARS flight nurse Bruce Parsons flew two missions on the same day, caring for and transporting teens experiencing symptoms caused by prescription drug overdoses, it was a hard day. “The most difficult overdose cases are the ones that turn us into detectives,” said Parsons. “If we know what the patient took, we have an easier time finding the antidote, if there is one. When we don’t have any information about what was ingested, the detective work starts. And worse yet is when the patient has taken multiple drugs.”
“These tragedies not only affect the patient’s families and friends; they affect the whole community.”
With access to drugs being as easy as looking in someone’s home medical cabinet, finding a nearby dealer on social media, or cooking up a recipe found online, both addicts and experimenters are suffering.
“When we arrive on scene at a suspected overdose it can be chaotic,” said Darcy McKay, STARS clinical operations manager and paramedic. “There are usually other people there with their unresponsive friend or family member, alcohol tends to be involved, and local first responders are present.”
“These calls are all about time,” McKay said. “If it’s an apparent opioid overdose, Narcan (nasal spray) is sometimes administered by EMS, police or a firefighter before STARS arrives. Other times, the patient presents as a methamphetamine OD, cocaine laced with fentanyl, or some other combination of substances, and requires different care.”
On the streets in Regina, where McKay also works as a paramedic, he sometimes sees multiple overdose cases in a day. Drugs and alcohol seem to go hand-in-hand. McKay also believes that the extra stress related to COVID-19 has more people looking for a release — often turning to drugs.
“Experienced addicts tend to do drugs with another person nearby,” said McKay. “That way, if something goes wrong that person can call for help. It is the methamphetamine users who tend to commit crimes to keep their habit going. They run hard and then crash.”
If you, or someone you know, would benefit from some support, there are local, provincial and national resources available. Staying safe and healthy includes addressing mental health issues.
• Saskatchewan HealthLine 8-1-1
• Alberta Health Link 8-1-1
• Manitoba Health Links-Info Santé 204-788-8200 or 1-888-315-9257
• Canadian Mental Health Association Saskatchewan Division:
• Canadian Mental Health Association Alberta Division:
• Canadian Mental Health Association Manitoba Division: