Canada News

First 11 months of 2020 1,548 people died of overdoses in BC

By Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter/The Tyee

VICTORIA – At least nine new overdose prevention sites are coming to communities across B.C. as the province grapples with what is on track to be its  deadliest year of illicit drug toxicity deaths.

The first 11 months of 2020  have seen 1,548 people die of overdoses. In 2018, the previous  deadliest year, 1,549 people died in the full year.

The BC Coroners Service reported today that  on average more than five people died each day in November for a total  of 153 deaths in B.C.’s longest-running public health emergency.

That’s nearly double the same month last year, when 81 people died.

To curb historical numbers  of emergency calls and deaths due to overdose, the province announced  $10.6 million in funding for the new overdose services in August. There  are currently seven permanent sites in B.C., six of which are in  Vancouver.

According to a statement  from the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, there will be several  new overdose prevention sites in Fraser Health, at least five more in  Interior Health, two more in Northern Health and two more in Vancouver  Coastal.

Island Health will focus on expanding  inhalation services at existing sites, which other authorities said was a  priority as well. 

In October, Vancouver Coastal Health said a  lack of inhalation services was putting people who use methamphetamine  at heightened risk of overdose.

Earlier this month, The Tyee asked newly  sworn-in Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson when  drug users will see the promised expansion of overdose prevention sites  and safer supply announced in September.

She declined to give a specific timeline but said the work to implement both interventions was happening at full-speed.

“COVID-19 has set us back with a dramatic  spike in drug toxicity,” she said. “I am committed to building on our  unrelenting response to the overdose crisis, finding new ways to  separate people from the poisoned drug supply, building more treatment  and recovery beds, and moving forward on decriminalization to reduce  stigma.”

The increasingly toxic drug supply in B.C.,  exacerbated by pandemic-related disruptions to the supply chain, means  even casual, one-time and infrequent drug users are at risk.

Fentanyl and its powerful opioid analogues  were present in more than 80 per cent of the deaths in 2020, compared  with just five per cent of deaths in 2012.

The presence of methamphetamine has also more than doubled from 14 per cent of deaths to 39 per cent in the same timeframe.

“The impacts of COVID-19 have been deadly  for those experiencing problematic substance use,” said Chief Coroner  Lisa Lapointe in a statement. “Ensuring access to critical harm  reduction measures including naloxone, supervised consumption sites,  overdose prevention sites and drug checking services are essential if we  want to prevent future deaths.”

She also urged a further expansion of safer  supply initiatives. “Providing those with substance use disorder access  to pharmaceutical alternatives will be of immense benefit to reduce the  harms and suffering resulting from the ‘for-profit’ illicit drug  market,” said Lapointe.

The Tyee has reached out to the health authorities for timelines on when the new sites will be operational. 

But nine months into a pandemic whose  public health measures sent overdoses to historical levels, advocates  are demanding immediate action on both overdose prevention and safer  supply.

“For people using illicit fentanyl,  prescribed fentanyl can be a lifesaver, prescribed heroin can be a  lifesaver too, but decision-makers need to invest in these programs to  make them a reality,” said Jordan Westfall, co-founder of the Canadian  Association for Safe Supply. 

ipsum facilisis Praesent Phasellus justo pulvinar ut id, elit.