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B.C. July overdose deaths near record high

Last Updated Aug 25, 2020 at 7:15 pm PDT


B.C. recorded a near-record 175 overdose deaths in July, just two fewer than June's record of 177

Health experts blame an increasingly toxic drug supply and the COVID-19 pandemic

The vast majority of all illicit drug deaths in B.C. involve fentanyl

VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) — B.C. recorded a near-record 175 overdose deaths in July, surpassing murders, car crashes, suicides, and COVID-19 deaths combined, as health officials blame a toxic drug supply and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The total is just two fewer than the provincial record of 177 set in June, and the third straight month with more than 170 overdose deaths.

The July total is also a 136 per cent increase compared to the same month a year ago and continues to surpass the number of deaths due to homicides, motor vehicle incidents, suicides and COVID-19 combined.

The BC Coroners Service released the totals Tuesday as health officials continued to appeal for a safe drug supply.

The vast majority of illicit drug deaths in B.C. involve fentanyl, while most are men between the ages of 19 and 49.

“This health emergency continues to take a tragic toll on people from all walks of life and in all communities of the province. Access to key harm reduction services in the midst of a dual health emergency has been a challenge, and the extreme concentration of the illicit fentanyl being trafficked is resulting in deaths within moments of use,” said chief coroner Lisa Lapointe.

Lapointe adds it is not uncommon for multiple people using together to die suddenly, without the chance to call for help. She encourages people who are using any substance to have someone with them who is willing and able to inject naloxone and call for emergency help if needed.

“As the risks for those purchasing from the illicit market are extreme, we continue to encourage clinicians to support those at risk of overdose by prescribing safe supply. We also continue to advocate for an accessible, evidence-based and accountable treatment and recovery system for anyone experiencing problematic substance use who is seeking this medical assistance,” she said.

Deaths from illicit drugs have been on the rise since March, and the province has now recorded five consecutive months with more than 100 fatalities.

Post-mortem toxicology testing data published in this report suggests an increase in the number of cases with extreme fentanyl concentrations (exceeding 50 micrograms per litre) in April, May, June, and July 2020 compared with previous months.

Overdose crisis made worse by COVID-19

“What the latest numbers show us is that the overdose crisis has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic and the unprecedented tragedy of death and loss to families in our province continues,” Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said.

“The toxicity of drug supply is extreme, and I implore anyone who may be using drugs to not do it alone. For friends and family members who are concerned about loved ones, reach out and connect with them and let them know they are not alone.”

Guy Felicella, peer clinical advisor with the Overdose Emergency Response Centre and BC Centre on Substance Use, added access to a safer supply remains the most needed intervention to stop overdoses and stop people from dying.

“This overdose crisis and addressing the contaminated drug supply is gone from defeat is debacle,” he said. “If we let this become the new normal, then we are telling people, some lives matter more than others, and for those who asked me if anyone cares about people who use drugs, the lack of action says to them, clearly, no.”


He asked for political leaders to address the issue of safe supply as a first step.

“And we need our leaders to demonstrate the compassion that Dr. Henry is always asking us to demonstrate for COVID-19 and the impacts of that demonstrate the same compassion and empathy for those experiencing problematic substance use, or those who are using substances,” he said.

“Obviously, punishment is not something that is helpful. Punitive measures are not helpful. Shunning people is not helpful. So what we’re looking for is acknowledgement that this is a medical issue, and all of the support that everybody in a position of influence can provide to help those in our communities experiencing problematic substance use.”

Felicella said multiple tools are needed, specifically drugs that users want, including heroin.

A review of completed cases from 2016 to 2019 indicates that the top four detected drugs relevant to illicit drug toxicity deaths were fentanyl (83 per cent), cocaine (50 per cent), methamphetamine and amphetamine (34 per cent), and heroin (15 per cent).

“If hydromorphone is our answer, then we’re failing miserably,” Felicella said. “And if it’s not working, then we need to try something. Because if we don’t try, the people die.”

Health officials have looked at multiple models to address the overdose crisis, including clinics staffed with nurse practitioners who would provide medications, according to Dr. Henry.

“There’s also ways that we are looking at with our physician colleagues with pharmacists and with our nursing leadership around some of the newer virtual care approaches that have come through in the last few months,” she said.

Henry also said teens and youth represent less than two per cent of the overdose deaths in the province.

“So there is a protective factor happening there and we really think it’s very likely because youth are not using the more toxic substances at that point in their lives and those who are tend to be in groups, and they are at this point still very willing to call for assistance,” Dr. Henry said.

909 overdose deaths this year

There have been 909 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 non-fatal overdose incidents is also increasing, with a record high of more than 2,700 calls reported by BC Emergency Health Services in July.

“Paramedics are responding to and reviving overdose patients about 80 times a day, every single day in B.C.,” said Jon Deakin, paramedic practice leader with BCEHS. “It’s a lot. It’s the highest number of daily overdoses BCEHS has ever seen.”

By health services delivery area, South Vancouver Island, Vancouver and Thompson Cariboo Shuswap have experienced the largest increase in the monthly average of illicit drug toxicity deaths between April and July compared to the period between January and March.

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy said the province has increased its response to overdose deaths since the start of the pandemic.

“Since March, we have introduced new guidance to give people access to a safe supply of prescription medications, doubled the number of youth treatment beds in the province, invested $10.5 million to increase the number of overdose prevention sites (including inhalation sites and supplies), provided more outreach teams, enabled registered nurses to help implement the safe supply guidance, invested $16 million in the creation of more bed-based treatment and recovery services, partnered with the federal government to support innovative harm reduction programs and supported or enhanced 16 substance-use integrated teams to make sure that people who connect with the health-care system stay connected,” she added.

Darcy said the province knows there is more work to do.

No deaths have been reported at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites.