FILE – An organizer displays a naloxone kit that people can pick up for free as International Overdose Awareness Day training seminar takes place at Centennial Square in Victoria, B.C., on Saturday August 31, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

Fatal overdoses continue to spike in B.C. as July sees 175 illicit drug deaths

B.C. hits grim milestone of more than 900 deaths in first seven months of 2020

The province recorded 175 fatal overdoses in July, pushing the total deaths from illicit drugs in B.C. to above 900 this year.

July marked the third month in a row where overdose deaths topped 170 and was down just two from a record-breaking month in May, when 177 people died. The province reached a grim milestone of 909 deaths so far in 2020 due to illicit drug overdoses, compared to 618 in the first seven months of 2019.

“The toxicity of drug supply is extreme,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said. Henry and Premier John Horgan have pushed to decriminalize simple possession of prohibited drugs.

READ MORE: B.C. premier asks Trudeau to decriminalize illicit drug possession as deaths climb

According to the B.C. Coroners Service, 5.6 British Columbians died each day due to illicit drug overdoses. In July 2019, 74 people died.

Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe called the deaths “profound and tragic.” Drug overdoses have killed nearly 6,000 people in B.C. The number of people dying of overdoses in the province continues to surpass deaths due to homicides, motor vehicle incidents, suicides and COVID-19 combined, she added.

“We continue to see an increase in death due to extreme fentanyl concentration,” Lapointe said. Fentanyl has been present in 78 per cent of deaths so far in 2020.

“If you are using illicit substances… it is critical you use only in the presence of someone willing and able to inject naloxone.”

Lapointe said that although the overdose crisis can often seem to be a problem of the Downtown Eastside, “every demographic in this province” has been hit by the crisis.

Broken down by health authority, 285 people died in Fraser Health, 254 people in Vancouver Coastal Health, 165 in Island Health, 143 in Interior Health and 62 in Northern Health. However, Northern Health has the highest rate of death at 35.4, with Vancouver Coastal Health at 35.1, Island Health at 33.2, Interior Health at 30.6 and Fraser Health at 25.5.

Henry’s voice broke as she offered condolences to the families and friends of victims of the overdose crisis.

“I implore anybody who is using drugs right now, do not do it alone. You need to have your lifeguard there,” she said.

Henry acknowledged that the measures taken in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic have made drug toxicity worse in B.C. Some supervised consumption sites have shortened their hours due to physical distancing concerns, and overall isolation has increased due to the pandemic.

“The pandemic has uncovered some of the inequities that we have in our society,” she said.

Guy Felicella, peer clinical advisor with the Overdose Emergency Response Centre and BC Centre on Substance Use, had harsh words for the provincial and federal governments.

“W have to save people’s lives and we’re failing miserably in doing that,” Felicella said. “This crisis has been decades in the making.”

Felicella, who has struggled with substance use in the past, said the pandemic response has shown where government priorities lie.

“More people die of a drug overdose than die of COVID,” he said. The virus has killed 203 people so far in B.C, compared to the 909 overdose deaths.

READ MORE: Parallel crises: How COVID-19 has exacerbated the drug overdose emergency

But with the increasing drug toxicity of the supply in B.C., health official said that naloxone is not enough. Paramedics responded to about 2,700 overdose calls in July, more than any other month since the crisis began in 2016.

Jon Deakin, paramedic practice leader with BC Emergency Health Services, said that while naloxone is the first step, bystanders should call 911 right away.

Deakin said 95 per cent of people survive an overdose when treated quickly by a paramedic.

Lapointe said the “shame and stigma” of illicit drug use causes many people to use alone and not head to the province’s supervised consumption sites. No deaths have been reported at those sites.

“There are so many repercussions currently if people become aware that you are experiencing problematic substance use,” she said, adding that the sites should be no more controversial than going to a walk-in doctors clinic.

“Obviously, punishment is not something that is helpful. Shaming people is not something that is helpful.”

The majority of drug overdose deaths happen when people use alone; in July, 85 per cent of fatal incidents took place inside. Of those, 56 per cent were in private residences and 29 per cent were in social and supportive housing, SROs (single room occupancy), shelters, hotels and other indoor locations. The 14 per cent that occured outside happened in vehicles, on streets and in parks.

As has been the case throughout the overdose crisis, the majority of overdose deaths are men under the age of 50. In 2020 so far, 79 per cent of deaths have been men and 68 per cent have been men between the ages of 19 and 49.

READ MORE: Nearly 6 people died from overdoses each day in June as B.C. sees continued spike


@katslepian

katya.slepian@bpdigital.ca

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

B.C. overdosesopioidsoverdose crisis

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

‘Each step is a prayer’: Ojibwe man will walk from Hope to Vancouver Island for Indigenous healing, reconciliation

James Taylor departs Sept. 20, returns to Saanich in five days for sacred fire

COLUMN: We don’t need an election. But it’s 2020, so we’ll probably get one anyways.

There are only selfish reasons for the NDP to trigger an election this fall

Say ‘Hi’ to the mountains (and rain): The smoke is gone from the Fraser Valley, for now

Saturday’s Fraser Valley air quality forecast at ‘moderate risk,’ but morning showers leave skies clear

Machine pistol among 14 firearms seized from Alaska man at Abbotsford border crossing

Corey Scott Kettering faces charges of smuggling and prohibited firearm possession

CHARTS: Beyond Metro Vancouver, COVID-19 cases in B.C. haven’t increased much recently

COVID-19 case counts outside of Metro Vancouver have been level since July

QUIZ: A celebration of apples

September is the start of the apple harvest

Ferry riders say lower fares are what’s most needed to improve service

Provincial government announces findings of public engagement process

Air quality advisory ends for the Lower Mainland

It had been in effect since Sept. 8

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies at 87

The court’s second female justice, died Friday at her home in Washington

Emaciated grizzly found dead on central B.C. coast as low salmon count sparks concern

Grizzly was found on Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw territory in Smith Inlet, 60K north of Port Hardy

VIDEO: B.C. to launch mouth-rinse COVID-19 test for kids

Test involves swishing and gargling saline in mouth and no deep-nasal swab

Young Canadians have curtailed vaping during pandemic, survey finds

The survey funded by Heart & Stroke also found the decrease in vaping frequency is most notable in British Columbia and Ontario

B.C. teachers file Labour Relations Board application over COVID-19 classroom concerns

The application comes as B.C.’s second week of the new school year comes to a close

70-year-old punched in the head in dispute over disability parking space in Nanaimo

Senior’s turban knocked off in incident at mall parking lot

Most Read