VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — B.C. set a record for drug overdose deaths in June for the second straight month.
The BC Coroners Service reported Thursday 175 deaths in June related to illicit substances, surpassing the previous high of 171 in May.
The record before that was 161 deaths in a month, set in December 2016.
B.C. has recorded four consecutive months with more than 100 illicit drug toxicity deaths.
“Today’s report clearly shows us that the tragedy of overdose deaths from the toxic street drug supply in B.C. continues to escalate,” Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says in a release.
“While much effort has been made to reduce harm, remove stigma, and provide the care that people living with addiction need, the impacts of the pandemic have made the situation dire for too many.”
Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said the COVID-19 pandemic has limited access to harm-reduction services.
“For those using substances – opioids or otherwise – please make sure you use only in the presence of someone who will call for immediate help if you need it, use an overdose prevention or supervised consumption site, and have your drugs checked before using, if you can,” she says.
“The drug supply in our province is highly toxic and the risk of using alone is too high. Buddying up could save your life.”
June was the worst month for illicit drug overdoses in BC. The BC Coroners Service says 175 people died last month, surpassing the previous high of 171 deaths in May. The chief coroner says the pandemic has limited access to harm-reduction services. pic.twitter.com/nZ6Z1av7U8
— Sonia Aslam (@SoniaSAslam) July 16, 2020
Lapointe adds access to a safe supply of drugs is critical.
“It is clear this is not just an opioid epidemic, with cocaine and methamphetamine/amphetamine detected in many drug deaths we investigate,” Lapointe says. “However, we do know that illicit fentanyl remains the most significant driver in the tragic number of deaths our communities are experiencing.”
There have been 728 illicit drug deaths to date in 2020 in B.C., and the number of deaths in each health authority is at or near the highest monthly totals ever recorded.
“The number of lives lost over more than four years of a public health emergency is heartbreaking. That each one of these deaths was entirely preventable makes this emergency all the more tragic,” says Dr. Perry Kendall, co-interim executive director at the BC Centre on Substance Use.
“It is quite clear what needs to be done: invest in a public health approach to substance use that promotes the health and equity of people who use drugs. This must include not only decriminalization, but also pharmaceutical alternatives to the toxic drug supply. Alongside investments in an evidence-based substance-use system of care to support recovery, treatment and harm reduction, these are the critical steps needed to finally end this emergency.”
Guy Felicella, an advisor with the Overdose Emergency Response Centre and BC Centre on Substance Use, says creating a permanent, accessible safe supply and decriminalizing people who use drugs should have happened long ago.
“I’m tired of waiting for what’s necessary when the calls for these changes have been made over and over again. And I’m tired of seeing people die while waiting for access to a safer supply or access to detox or to get into recovery. The waiting is killing people.”
Dr. Shannon McDonald, acting chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority, added that the impact on First Nations people in B.C. from this crisis is higher than the rest of the province’s population.
“Indigenous people continue to be disproportionately impacted by this worsening crisis. Real change is needed and we could begin with more of what works, namely harm reduction and a safe drug supply,” McDonald said. “In the meantime, let us be kind to those who use substances to escape the pain they are living with and lovingly remember those we have lost.”
And while Premier John Horgan noted COVID-19 has intensified the drug supply, he said battling the opioid crisis and the pandemic can’t be compared.
“I think we’re talking about to separate things here. They’re both public emergencies without any doubt,” he said.
“I don’t believe that we should bring these two things together, nor do I think that we need to separate them to get better outcomes.”
But fighting addiction is different than fighting the pandemic, though, no less important, he added.
“Those are conscious decisions people can make to protect themselves,” Horgan said. “When you are addicted to opioids you’re not making conscious decisions other than getting your next opioid, and those are issues that we need to intervene in, and we are doing level best at a very difficult time.”
Illicit drug overdose death report:illicit-drug
-With files from Liza Yuzda and Kathryn Tindale