TORONTO — Overdose deaths and alcohol-related fatalities increased among Canadians under 65 during the COVID-19 pandemic due to extended lockdowns and isolation, according to new data from Statistics Canada.
In a new report from the Canadian Vital Statistics Death Database released on Monday, StatCan found there were 5,535 more deaths than expected in those younger than 65 from the end of March 2020 to the beginning of April 2021.
Over the same period, the agency says 1,380 COVID-19 deaths were attributed to the same age group, suggesting that the excess mortality is “in large part related” to unintentional side-effects of the pandemic, such as substance abuse.
“While we sometimes observe excess mortality that is consistent with the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19, data reveal that indirect consequences of the pandemic are also having a significant impact on the number of excess deaths in Canada, particularly among younger Canadians,” StatCan said in the report.
Of the deaths in those under the age of 44, the number of alcohol-induced deaths rose from 325 in 2019 to 480 in 2020, while alcohol-induced deaths in those aged 45 to 64 also increased.
The agency noted that alcohol-induced deaths include deaths attributed to “a number of diseases and conditions” related to the chronic use of alcohol, but exclude unintentional deaths, such as car accidents where alcohol may have only been a contributing factor.
StatCan reported that the increase in alcohol-related deaths was seen in both men and women, and was predominantly attributed to liver disease and mental or behavioural disorders.
Previous data reported evidence in Ontario, Alberta, and B.C. that substance use increased in 2020 compared to years prior, with many citing worsening mental health as the reason for escalated consumption.
StatCan added that the disruption of access to harm-reduction programs, supervised consumption services, and in-person support services for substance use during the pandemic may have been a factor in the increased mortality.
“Also, the economic, social, and psychological impacts of the pandemic as well as the public-health measures in place may have played a role in increasing alcohol use among some individuals,” StatCan said in the report.
Based on data received so far from the provinces and territories, StatCan also found an increase in overdose-related deaths.
According to the data, there were 3,770 deaths caused by unintentional poisoning in 2020 compared to 3,240 deaths in 2019, with the two hardest hit regions being Ontario and Alberta.
StatCan reported that the number of deaths attributed to accidental poisonings in Canadians age 44 and under increased from 1,605 in 2019 to 2,125 in 2020.
For comparison, the agency noted that accidental poisonings were at 1,830 for this age group in 2017 during the height of the opioid crisis.
Similarly, for the 45 to 64 age group, StatCan found there was an increase in the number of deaths due to unintentional poisonings in 2020 compared to 2019 and 2017.
However, StatCan acknowledged that annual mortality rates for accidental poisonings has “generally increased over time.”
The agency says accidental poisonings are characterized by “increases in the number of deaths due to unintentional poisonings by narcotics, opioids and hallucinogens,” as well as unintentional poisonings by multiple, unspecified drugs and other medications.
These deaths can include those using illicit drugs recreationally, in addition to those who mistakenly take too much over-the-counter medication.
As the pandemic evolves and the number of COVID-19 infections continues to decline, StatCan noted that Canada’s mortality dynamics will also change.
StatCan said that changes in routine behaviours, lifestyle adjustments, reduced influenza activity and less road traffic travel may eventually show decreases in some causes of death during 2020 compared to previous years.
The agency said it will continue to provide information on excess deaths, causes of death and comorbidities as it becomes available to “better understand the evolving impacts of the pandemic on mortality in Canada.”