The COVID-19 impact and characterization on substance use-related emergency department visit for adolescents and young adults in Canada: Practical implications


Coronavirus (COVID-19)-related stressors precipitated the mental health crisis and increased substance use in Canada and worldwide. As the pandemic continues to evolve, monitoring and updating substance use-related ED visit trends is essential to ensure the stability and quality of ED services under the prolonged pandemic timeline.

Aims and objectives:

This study examined the trends and characterization of substance use-related ED visits during the pandemic among adolescents and young adults (aged 13-25 years) in Ontario, Canada.


Descriptive statistics and binary logistic regression analyses were conducted using population-based, repeated cross-sectional data. The volume, patient characteristics (age and sex) and hospital/ED visit features (triage to end time, timing of the visit, triage level and referral source) were compared before (2019) and during COVID-19 (2020 and 2021) by each substance type (alcohol, opioid, cannabis, sedatives, cocaine, stimulants and multiple psychoactive substances).


Substance use-related ED visits decreased by 1.5 times during the pandemic compared to the prepandemic level. However, opioid-related ED visits continued to show an increasing trend and did not recover to the prepandemic level in 2021. Moreover, a significant increase in emergent/life-threatening triage levels (Canadian Triage and Acuity Scales 1 and 2) in substance-related ED visits is alarming (2019 = 36.8%, 2020 = 38.7% and 2021 = 38.4%). We also found a general decrease in weekend visits, overnight visits and visits on statutory holidays, and substance use-related ED patients tended to stay longer (over 6 h) in the ED during the pandemic.


Our findings indicate unmet substance use treatment needs due to the limited accessibility and heightened threshold for ED visits during the pandemic. Providing access to substance treatment/programs outside ED is critical to reducing substance use-related complications presenting in the ED. Also, policies addressing the pandemic-related complexities in the ED and Health Human Resource challenges are warranted.


COVID-19; emergency department; recovery strategy; substance use; youth.

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