B.C. overdose deaths down 36% in 2019, but officials say safer drug supply needed

Click to play video: 'Health Matters: Nearly three people a day die from illicit drug overdoses in 2019' Health Matters: Nearly three people a day die from illicit drug overdoses in 2019
WATCH: Health Matters: Nearly three people a day die from illicit drug overdoses in 2019 – Feb 24, 2020

The province has released new numbers on fatal overdoses in B.C.

The BC Coroners Service says there were 981 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2019, an average of nearly three deaths per day. That number is likely to increase as investigations conclude, the coroners service said.

The total represents a 36 per cent decrease from 2018, but is virtually identical to the number of deaths in 2016, the year the provincial health emergency was declared.

READ MORE: Vancouver mayor says Trudeau ‘open’ to safe drug supply proposal to curb overdose crisis

“We’re into our fifth year of a public health emergency and still hundreds of people are dying,” said B.C.’s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe.

Lapointe said harm-reduction strategies have made a difference, but the number of illicit drug overdoses is greater than the number of fatalities related to motor vehicle incidents, suicides, and homicides combined.

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The latest numbers highlight a trend that overdoses are disproportionately affecting middle-aged men, with more than three-quarters of suspected overdose deaths involving men and 71 per cent involving people aged 30 to 59.

“We have the means to save their lives,” Lapointe said. “What we need to demonstrate is the will.”

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The coroners service said in December that paramedics responded to more than 20,000 overdose calls in the first 10 months of 2019, an average of 64 calls a day.

Lance Stephenson of BC Emergency Health Services said they saw a two per cent increase in overdose calls in the last year.

“While the death rate has gone down, the increase in calls has gone up,” he said.

“I can only speculate that we’re doing a better job at saving lives of the people that are overdosing.”

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Lapointe says the BC Coroners Service is joining health officials in renewing calls for improved access to a regulated, safer drug supply in the province.

More than four in every five deaths in 2019 had fentanyl detected in post-mortem testing.

READ MORE: Governor general highlights ‘complicated’ overdose issue while touring Vancouver prevention site

Dr. Bonnie Henry, the province’s top doctor, continues to advocate for the decriminalization of drugs.
“Right now the stigma associated with being labelled a criminal if you are taking drugs, or are in possession of small amounts of drugs for your own use, is one of the major barriers that we’re seeing that keep people from talking to their family, to their friends, from seeking help for their drug use.
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— With files from Simon Little and The Canadian Press

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