An ecological study of the correlation between COVID-19 support payments and overdose events in British Columbia, Canada

Int J Drug Policy. 2024 Mar 13:126:104362. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2024.104362. Online ahead of print.

Abstract

Background: Pandemic income support payments have been speculatively linked to an increased incidence of illicit drug poisoning (overdose). However, existing research is limited.

Methods: Collating Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) payment data with data on paramedic attended overdose and illicit drug toxicity deaths for the province of British Columbia at the Local Health Area (LHA) level, we conducted a correlation analysis to compare overdose rates before, during and after active CERB disbursement.

Results: There were 20,014,270 CERB-entitled weeks identified among residents of British Columbia for the duration of the pandemic response program. Approximately 52 % of all CERB entitled weeks in the study were among females and approximately 48 % were among males. Paramedic-attended overdoses increased uniformly across the pre-CERB, CERB and post-CERB periods, while illicit drug toxicity deaths sharply increased and then remained high over the period of the study. Correlation analyses between overdose and CERB-entitled weeks approached zero for both paramedic-attended overdoses and illicit drug toxicity deaths.

Conclusions: These findings suggest that attributing the pandemic increase in overdose to income support payments is unfounded. Sustained levels of unacceptably high non-fatal and fatal drug poisonings that further increased at the start of the pandemic are reflective of complex pre-existing and pandemic-driven changes to overdose risk.

Keywords: Ecological analysis; Income assistance; Overdose; Pandemic.