VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Overdose deaths among Indigenous peoples in B.C. have spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic.
From January to May, 89 First Nations, Metis and Inuit people died from suspected drug overdoses, according to new stats released Monday by the First Nations Health Authority.
The total represents a 93 per cent increase compared to the same period last year.
“These data demonstrate that the opioid crisis continues to disproportionally affect vulnerable B.C. First Nations people. The concurrent COVID-19 pandemic is also creating challenges for those struggling with addiction,” Charlene Belleau, chair of the First Nations Health Council, says in a release.
“Properly resourced treatment centres and culturally safe harm reduction strategies will be critical moving forward. Now, more than ever, our people need this support.”
The health authority notes Indigenous people represent under 3.5 per cent of B.C.’s population, but have accounted for around 16 per cent of all overdose deaths this year.
— FNHA (@fnha) July 6, 2020
COVID-19 safety measures have disrupted the drug supply, making the current supply more toxic, says the First Nations Health Authority.
“The illicit drug toxicity crisis in B.C. has resulted in a heartbreaking number of deaths in communities across British Columbia and, as we see from the Coroners Service data reported to the First Nations Health Authority, has impacted Indigenous people at an even more tragic rate,” said Lisa Lapointe, B.C.’s chief coroner.
“We know the drug supply in British Columbia is dangerously toxic; the data being shared today represents a clear signal that all levels of government must urgently improve access to safer supply and to evidence-based, culturally safe, supports and services for those experiencing problematic substance use.”
So far this year, First Nations individuals have died at 5.6 times the rate of other B.C. residents, while in 2019 the ratio was 3.8.
“Also, COVID-19 public health measures, such as physical distancing and staying home, may be having unintended negative consequences for people who use substances. People may be less likely to access harm reduction services and supports and may be using alone when they otherwise would not have,” says the First Nations Health Authority.
“These numbers are telling us we need to do more to support our people with harm reduction and access to safe supply because the COVID-19 pandemic is increasing vulnerability to poisoned drugs,” says Dr. Shannon McDonald, acting chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority.
The number of First Nations people, specifically, who are dying from illicit drugs has increased each year since 2016, except 2019 which saw 113, according to FNHC. In 2018, the total was 201.
“The increase in overdose deaths amongst Indigenous people in B.C. is deeply concerning. The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing all of us to stay farther apart from others, isolating people and adding to what is already an immense challenge,” says Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
“We need people living with substance use and addiction to know that there are still supports in place to keep people safe and prevent overdoses.”