Overdose calls spiked throughout B.C., in 2020. (BCEHS photo illustration)

Stigma, isolation, inadequate services blamed for highest opioid death rate in B.C.’s north

Illicit drug overdose deaths in Northern Health equalled 46 deaths per 100,000 population

By Fran Yanor, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Rocky Mountain Goat

Last year, for the first time, Northern BC earned the tragic distinction of having the highest rate of illicit drug deaths in the province.

Experts cited rural isolation, stigma, a toxic drug supply and inadequate treatment services as causes.

While it’s tough to pinpoint the exact causes in a given community, there are certain factors that stand out, B.C.’s Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said in an interview on Feb. 11.

“It is often a consequence of services,” Lapointe said. “What is available in terms of supports for people who are experiencing problematic substances? Are there overdose prevention sites available? Is naloxone widely available?”

RELATED: Pandemic aggravates opioid crisis as overdoses rise and services fall out of reach

RELATED: With 1,716 deaths, 2020 deadliest year of overdose crisis in B.C. history

Of the 32 overdose prevention and supervised consumption sites in the province, only one is located in Northern Health.

The lone overdose prevention site in Prince George helps people with addictions and other health issues, and in 2020, got 3,583 visits from January to November of 2020, according the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC).

By comparison, six sites in Interior Health received 4,902 visits during the same time frame.

“Harm reduction measures are a key part to keep people alive, but so is access to safe supply so we’re not forcing people to go to the illicit, for-profit drug market,” said Lapointe.

COVID-19 disrupted the illicit drug supply and local drug makers have filled the gap with a variety of toxic alternatives. From 2017 to 2020, illicit fentanyl, 50 times or more stronger than heroin, was found in nearly 87 per cent of the overdose deaths. Cocaine and methamphetamine were second most prevalent.People are at the whim of an unpredictable, unregulated market, said Lapointe.

To provide safe supply, 10 Opioid Agonist Treatment (OAT) clinics in Northern Health offer a range of services including prescribed medications to manage cravings or ease opioid withdrawal, and access to naloxone, which can reverse an opioid overdose. Some health practitioners also prescribe OAT medications which help support people to engage in recovery.

“When people are stabilized and looking for recovery and treatment options, those need to be available,” said Lapointe, adding that treatment also needs to be financially and geographically accessible in communities with the biggest “burden of overdose.”

“There’s a lack of resources, a lack of supports for people who are wanting to get assistance or help,” said Maureen Davis, executive director of the northern BC chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association. “There’s always extensive wait periods.”

Last week, the provincial government announced funding for 100 new treatment beds in the province, including 12 in Kamloops. None were located in Prince George or the Robson Valley area.

“Systemically, we’re not set up really well for treatment,” Davis said, who has worked on the mental health front lines in Prince George for 30 years. “We really don’t have treatment centers here, so you’re waiting to be sent somewhere, and lots of times people fall apart.”

In 2020, 1,716 British Columbians died from an illicit drug overdose, including 132 people in Northern Health, which equalled 46 deaths per 100,000 population, the highest in B.C. The provincial rate was 33 per 100,000.

Living in the north is just harder, she said Davis. “And COVID is making all the isolation that is often a part of living in northern and rural communities, and (worsening) it even more.”

From 2018 through 2020, Prince George (including the Robson Valley) lost 142 people to illicit drug overdoses 144 people from Kamloops died, and five people from North Thompson, including Clearwater, Vavenby, and Blue River, lost their lives.

“What’s most worrying to me is that we’re a year into COVID and we’re still seeing such high numbers all across B.C.,” said Dr. Rakel Kling, northern interior medical officer for Northern Health.

“It can happen to anyone, in any age group, in any family, in any community,” said Kling, and the pandemic has increased the risks. “People are using drugs alone and overdosing alone.”

Discrimination is another factor in overdoses, Kling said. “Everywhere in all of our communities, stigma is a huge problem. There’s a lot of unwillingness to have support available for people who use drugs or have them located in certain areas.”

Some communities have taken a stigmatizing, almost a shame-based, approach, Lapointe said. “In those situations, people are fearful of coming forward, they don’t want to divulge their drug use, they’re fearful of losing their jobs, of the shame associated with it.”

It’s difficult to know the scope of the problem, said Dannielle Alan, Robson Valley-Canoe director for the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George. “Here, it’s very much under the radar.”

Some people may leave the community for drugs or treatment since both are more accessible in larger cities, she said. Alan thinks McBride should host a treatment facility.

“Across British Columbia, we don’t have the services people need,” Alan said. “Rather than put them in the middle of a city where they’re surrounded by the same lifestyle, take them out of that completely put them in a healthy (mountain) environment.”

fran↕thegoatnews / ↕FranYanor

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

Just Posted

The Great Bear Snowshed on the Coquihalla Highway (Highway 5) in British Columbia. Truck driver Roy McCormack testified in BC Supreme Court in Chilliwack on Feb. 25, 2021 that his brakes started smoking in about this location, and soon after he lost all braking, which led to a multi-vehicle crash further down the road on Aug. 5, 2016. (GoogleMaps)
Truck driver charged with criminal negligence in Coquihalla crash is accused of ignoring smoking brakes

Just before crashing the smoking truck was seen entering Zopkios brake check and leaving shortly after

Dr. Andy Edelson (front left) and Ken Selvaraja hold the cheque, with (from left to right) Jim Hinds president of Rotary Club of Mission, Judith Ray, chair of MATH and Lloyd Rash, Mission rotarian in the back.
Funds raised for CT scanner feasibility study at Mission Memorial Hospital

Ken Selvaraja and Lanka Jewels raise $39,000 of $70,000 needed through pendant raffle

Kathleen Gros will be helping local creatives explore the intersection of words and pictures through comic books in an upcoming online workshop.
Vancouver graphic novelist to share skills in online workshop with Agassiz Library

Kathleen Gros will be leading the Magical World of Words and Pictures workshop on March 6

The last three wild northern spotted owls live near the Spuzzum Watershed outside of Hope. The province recently ordered a halt to logging for at least a year to give the owls a chance to survive.  (Photo/Jared Hobbs)
Logging halted in northern spotted owl habitat near Hope

Halt will last at least a year, gives time to formulate survival plan for Northern Spotted Owl

The Rocket Science S.T.E.M. camp will run virtually during spring break. (Submitted photo)
Abbotsford Airshow, Gearbots Educational Resources launch Rocket Science camp

Virtual format of camp open to students aged nine and up, will run during spring break

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature. (B.C. government)
B.C. reports 10 additional deaths, 395 new COVID-19 cases

The majority of new coronavirus infections were in the Fraser Health region

A new survey has found that virtual visits are British Columbian’s preferred way to see the doctor amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Unsplash)
Majority of British Columbians now prefer routine virtual doctor’s visits: study

More than 82% feel virtual health options reduce wait times, 64% think they lead to better health

Captain and Maria, a pair of big and affectionate akbash dogs, must be adopted together because they are so closely bonded. (SPCA image)
Shuswap SPCA seeks forever home for inseparable Akbash dogs

A fundraiser to help medical expenses for Captain and Maria earned over 10 times its goal

Cory Mills, Eric Blackmore and A.J. Jensen, all 20, drown in the Sooke River in February 2020. (Contributed photos)
Coroner confirms ‘puddle jumping’ in 2020 drowning deaths of 3 B.C. men

Cory Mills, Eric Blackmore and A.J. Jensen pulled into raging river driving through nearby flooding

Castlegar doctor Megan Taylor contracted COVID-19 in November. This photo was taken before the pandemic. Photo: Submitted
Kootenay doctor shares experience contracting COVID-19

Castlegar doctor shares her COVID experience

Shaelene Keeler Bell. (Facebook)
Candlelight vigil planned for Chilliwack mother missing for four weeks

Virtual event to ‘spread some light’ for 23-year-old Shaelene Bell of Chilliwack

Ashley Paxman, 29, is in the ICU after being struck by a vehicle along Highway 97 Feb. 18, 2021. She remains in critical condition. (GoFundMe)
Okanagan woman in ICU with broken bones in face after being struck by car

She remains in serious condition following Feb. 18 incident

Vancouver International Women in Film Festival kicks off March 5.
Women in Film Festival features two B.C. filmmakers

The 16th annual festival kicks off March 5, 2021

The booklet roots present day activism in the history of racist policies, arguing the history must be acknowledged in order to change. (CCPA)
New resource dives into 150 years of racist policy in B.C.

Racist history must be acknowledged in order to change, authors say

Most Read