Evaluating interventions to facilitate opioid agonist treatment access among people who inject drugs in Toronto, Ontario during COVID-19 pandemic restrictions


Background: In March 2020, following a provincial COVID-19 emergency declaration, modifications to opioid agonist treatment (OAT) were introduced in Ontario, Canada to promote treatment access amid the pandemic and ongoing opioid overdose crisis. Modifications included federal exemptions to facilitate OAT prescription re-fills, extensions, and deliveries and interim treatment guidance emphasizing take-home (non-observed) doses and reduced urine drug screening for OAT patients.

Methods: We conducted an interrupted time series study using health administrative data from September 17th, 2019–September 21st, 2020, on 359 people who inject drugs with suspected opioid use disorder in Toronto, Ontario. We used segmented regression analyses to evaluate the joint effects of the provincial COVID-19 emergency declaration, federal OAT exemptions, and interim treatment guidance—all implemented between March 17th–23rd, 2020—on the weekly proportion of participants enrolled in OAT (i.e., ≥1 day(s) covered with methadone or buprenorphine/naloxone), with an opioid-related overdose (based on emergency department visits and hospitalizations), and who died (all-cause), and the weekly proportion of OAT-enrolled participants receiving take-home doses (i.e., ≥1 day(s) covered) and undergoing urine drug screening.

Results: Post-implementation, the interventions were associated with immediate absolute changes in OAT enrollment (+1.95%; 95% CI=0.04%–3.85%), receipt of take-home doses (+18.3%; 95% CI=13.2%–23.4%), and urine drug screening (-22.4%; 95% CI=[-26.9%]–[-17.9%]) and a gradual absolute increase of 0.56% in urine drug screening week-to-week (95% CI=0.27%–0.86%) beyond the pre-implementation trend. At 26 weeks post-implementation, OAT enrollment and urine drug screening approached pre-implementation levels whereas the increase in take-home doses was largely sustained (+15.0%; 95% CI=4.33%–25.6%). No post-implementation increases in opioid-related overdoses were observed. Death was not modelled (low event frequency).

Conclusion: Changes to OAT provision following provincial COVID-19 restrictions were associated with an immediate and sustained increase in take-home dose coverage among OAT-enrolled participants, without corresponding increases in opioid-related overdoses among all participants.

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