VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) — This past summer saw the highest number of overdose calls ever recorded in B.C. over a three-month stretch, and deaths from toxic drugs again surpassed 100 in August, according to data released Wednesday by the province.
B.C. set a record with 177 illicit drug toxicity and fentanyl-detected drug deaths this past June, then had 175 more in July. August saw another 147 such deaths, a 16-per-cent decrease from the month prior, but a 71 per cent increase of the same month in 2019.
The BC Coroners Service has detected a sustained increase of illicit drug toxicity deaths since March, when the state of emergency was called in B.C. due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
B.C. has now recorded six consecutive months with over 100 illicit drug toxicity deaths.
“We continue to see data, high numbers of illicit drug toxicity deaths in our province and, you know, with 147 illicit drug deaths in the month alone, that’s 147 families, communities, workplaces, sports organizations. This is impacting people from all walks of life,” said Andy Watson, with the B.C. Coroners Service.
— Martin MacMahon (@martinmacmahon) September 23, 2020
“We know that that we’ve seen a higher number of illicit drug deaths during the time of the dual health emergency with the COVID-19 pandemic. And we know that some of that’s related to the ability to access services,” he added. “We know that there’s an impact on the drug supply in our province. But since April of this year, we’ve seen more than 800 illicit drug deaths in our province during the dual health emergency — and at the time of the pandemic and the overdose crisis happening, hand in hand — obviously that’s a significant number of people.”
Post-mortem toxicology testing data published in the most recent report from the BC Coroners Service suggests an increase in the number of cases with extreme fentanyl concentrations — those exceeding 50 micrograms per litre — in April, May, June, July and August compared with previous months.
From April to August, approximately 14 per cent of illicit drug deaths showed signs of extreme fentanyl concentrations compared with eight per cent from January 2019 to March of this year, according to the Coroners Service.
Safe supply needed
Watson said the Coroners Service knows the drug supply in the province is toxic.
“We’re going to sound, maybe, a bit like a broken record here, but we really need to emphasize the point that we have too many people dying from a toxic drug supply. So the solution is how do we make sure that people who use drugs, who use for a variety of reasons, are able to do so safely?” he added.
“And whether that’s access to safer supply or building on the great efforts that have already been done in terms of decriminalization and looking at ways to, as we’ve seen from different police agencies, take away complications for people with simple possession and really go after the people who are profiting the most and who are dealing in big numbers. We’ve got to make sure that we’re getting the bad supply off the streets and we’ve got to make sure that we’re taking the steps to help people who are using to be able to do so safely.”
There have been 1,068 illicit drug deaths to date in 2020 in B.C., based on preliminary data.
The total number of illicit drug deaths in the first eight months of the year surpassed the total for all of 2019.
The number of non-fatal overdose incidents has also increased significantly.
BC Emergency Health Services reports close to 7,500 overdose calls throughout B.C. this past summer, making it the highest number of overdose calls ever recorded in a three-month stretch.
Breaking down the numbers
According to the province:
- illicit drug toxicity death rates involving males have increased in recent months and have remained high, whereas rates of death involving females declined to average levels in August;
- illicit drug toxicity death rates for those aged 19 to 59 have increased in recent months and remain high;
- regionally, the Northern Health Authority has seen illicit drug toxicity death rates increase in recent months and remain relatively high;
- iIllicit fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamines continue to be the top drugs involved in these drug deaths.
Watson said ending the stigma attached to illicit drug use is another key issue to help reduce deaths, and those who .
“You know, we see the attention that’s put on the COVID-19 pandemic, and rightly so, it’s impacting British Columbians from all from across the province. But why not the same level of attention and interest in the illicit drug crisis?” he added.
“We look at the death totals as a comparative and unfortunately we see more illicit drug deaths and I think we’ve got to be courageous and take a look at how do we add more resources and more tools to help respond to this.”
BC Liberal candidate Jane Thornthwaite was critiical of NDP leader John Horgan and his party’s approach to the overdose crisis.
“It’s simply not enough anymore to solely invest in one approach,” she says in a release. “Harm reduction supports like overdose prevention sites and greater distribution of naloxone kits are saving lives but we also need immediate investment in treatment and recovery. Only when we are able to get to the root of someone’s addiction, such as mental health issues, trauma or abuse, can we end the cycle of addiction.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said earlier this month that Ottawa plans to move forward “aggressively” on ensuring a safe drug supply amid the ongoing overdose crisis.