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Overdose deaths spike as B.C. reports record number of fatalities in May

Last Updated Jun 11, 2020 at 2:24 pm PDT

A naloxone overdose reversal kit is shown in Vancouver, Friday, Feb. 10, 2017. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)

There were 170 suspected overdose deaths in B.C. in May, the highest monthly total on record

The previous record of 161 deaths in a month was set back in December of 2016

The 170 suspected illicit overdose deaths in May mark a 93 per cent increase from the same time last year

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Alarming new numbers show B.C. has recorded its highest-ever total for illicit drug deaths in a month.

According to the province, there were 170 suspected overdose-related fatalities in May. The previous record of 161 deaths in a month was set back in December of 2016.

The 170 suspected illicit overdose deaths in May mark a 93 per cent increase from the same time last year, when 88 deaths were recorded.

“It is both sad and deeply frustrating to see the number of illicit drug deaths reach a new high in B.C. four years after the declaration of a public health emergency,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner.

Men between the ages of 19 and 49 accounted for 70 per cent of deaths in 2020. Vancouver, Surrey, and Victoria have been the hardest-hit cities.

May marks the third month in a row B.C. recorded more than 100 illicit drug overdose deaths, the province notes. So far, it’s reported 554 deaths due to overdoses since the beginning of the year.

“More British Columbians died of overdose in one month than died in the whole first wave of COVID-19. All British Columbians should collectively share our grief and urge action to improve access to safer supply so people can get the help they need,” Guy Felicella, peer clinical advisor with BC Centre on Substance Use and the provincial Overdose Emergency Response Centre, says in a release.

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According to the province’s newest report, more people showed higher levels of fentanyl in their systems in April and May compared with months before. Close to 20 per cent of cases in April and May showed higher concentrations of fentanyl, the report says.

“The drug supply is unpredictable and highly toxic, and has led to a sustained increase in fatal and non-fatal overdoses from smoking and injection in recent months,” said Dr. Jane Buxton, harm reduction lead for the BC Centre for Disease Control. “COVID-19 has added challenges and people may be feeling more isolated and anxious, but it’s important to continue to buddy up, or access local overdose prevention and supervised consumption services during this time.”

In April of 2016, B.C.’s then-public health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, declared a public health emergency due to the opioid crisis.

Kendall says in the last three months, each month is worst than the last.

“Thanks to COVID, social distancing, people scared to go out, worried about getting infected all of those things come together to make a perfect storm,” he says.

He adds isolation is leaving people vulnerable because they’re using drugs alone, and the drug supply was impacted when international travel was cut off.

“The drug quality has changed,” he says. “So people who might have been used to a particular dose of the drug fentanyl are now getting a lot more than they thought they were.”

Still, Kendall says before COVID, the severity and number of overdoses were similar

“We were stopping people from dying. Now it looks as if we somehow lost that ability. Either people aren’t being in places that they can be reached, or they don’t have anybody with them which is clearly the case for many of them.”

-With files from Liza Yuza