SFU researcher to study impacts of dual public health emergencies on youth

March 16, 2021

Simon Fraser University public policy researcher Kora DeBeck has received federal funding to study the combined impact of the opioid overdose crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic on Vancouver youth who use drugs.

The funding was confirmed last week by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), which announced $25.2 million in funding for 52 research products to further our understanding of COVID-19.

DeBeck, who is also a research scientist with the BC Centre of Substance Use at Providence Health Care, is the principal investigator for the At-Risk Youth Study (ARYS), a longitudinal cohort study of street-involved youth who use drugs in Vancouver aiming to explore various factors that influence their well-being. The cohort began in 2005 and is funded by the CIHR and the U.S. National Institutes for Health Research.

Kora DeBeck

This new funding will support her latest work, which will consist of interviewing a cohort of young people (aged 14 to 26) to evaluate the impact of the pandemic on the illicit drug supply, overdose risk, access to overdose prevention interventions and the long-term trajectory of addiction treatment engagement and drug use patterns.

British Columbia is currently struggling to manage two simultaneous public health emergencies; the drug overdose crisis declared in April 2016 and the COVID-19 public health emergency declared in March 2020. Although illicit drug toxicity death rates are highest among adults, the death rate per 100,000 for youth and young adults age 19-29 has increased from 5.9 in 2010 to 40.5 in 2020. Youth and young adults consistently account for approximately one-in-five of all overdose deaths in B.C.

Public health measures taken to respond to the COVID-19 crisis were expected to challenge responses to the overdose crisis and negatively impact the health and well-being of youth and young adults who use drugs.

Specifically, border closures and travel restrictions are known to strain traditional illicit drug supplies further increasing the flow of fentanyl into the illicit drug market and increasing the risk of fatal overdoses. Physical distancing measures risk isolating youth and interrupting access to key health interventions.

Conversely, in response to COVID-19, B.C. implemented a number of emergency measures that sought to prevent and manage the pandemic among priority populations. These include expanded access to opioid agonist therapy (OAT) through revised prescription guidelines and risk mitigation prescribing guidelines which allow physicians and nurse practitioners to prescribe certain pharmaceuticals to people who use illicit drugs as alternatives to toxic illicit drugs.

The new CIHR funding aims to enable researchers to target priority areas and advance knowledge and management of COVID-19-related issues.