March was B.C.’s deadliest month for overdoses in a year: B.C. Coroners Service

A paramedic tends to an overdose patient in the St. Paul’s Hospital ambulance bay. Simon Little / Global News

March was the deadliest month for overdoses in B.C. in the last year, according to new statistics from the BC Coroners Service.

The agency says 113 people died of suspected illicit drug overdoses in March 2020, the first time the overdose death toll has topped 100 since March of last year.

The number of overdose deaths in March represented a three per cent drop year-over-year, but a staggering 61 per cent increase from February 2020, the coroners service said.

READ MORE: Vancouver sees spike in overdose deaths amid COVID-19 crisis

The Fraser Health region (91 per cent) and Island Health region (80 per cent) saw the largest increase in fatalities from the Janurary-February average this year.

The vast majority of victims in 2020 are men (76 per cent) and people aged 19 to 49 (73 per cent).

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While Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria have recorded the highest number of deaths this year, the Northern Health region had the highest rate of drug deaths when adjusted for population, with 23 deaths per 100,000 people.

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As in previous reports from the coroners service, most deaths (86 per cent) happened indoors, more than half of them in private residences, and about a quarter in supportive housing, shelters or other indoor locations.

READ MORE: Concern for Downtown Eastside after U.S. tests find asymptomatic COVID-19 outbreaks among homeless

Late last month, Vancouver Coastal Health reported a significant drop-off in the number of people using supervised injection sites and overdose prevention sites.

There are normally 6,000 visits a week at overdose prevention sites. Since the pandemic, that number has dropped to 2,000 due to concerns over exposure from both operators and visitors.

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With the coronavirus, there’s a lot of confusion about what people should be doing, we’re being told to stay inside,” said Sarah Blyth with the Overdose Prevention Society.

Blyth said that directive conflicts with public health messaging that people shouldn’t use drugs alone, potentially setting up the conditions for a deadly overdose.

She said the OPS has been trying to get information to drug users, and has expanded its facility in the Downtown Eastside to include an outdoor area to accommodate people with safe social distancing.

“It’s very difficult because, you know, a lot of people are homeless, and in [the Downtown Eastside], you know, people are living in really small quarters and they have limited outside space.

Advocates for drug users have been warning for weeks that the COVID-19 pandemic will exacerbate the province’s existing opioid overdose crisis.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Street art to inform residents on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

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Growing concern has increased calls for the province to provide a clean supply of opioids for people with addictions. Last year, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry called for a decriminalization of people who use drugs, but stopped short of recommending the prescription of opioids to people who use drugs.

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Dr. Bonnie Henry on B.C.’s continuing overdose crisis during COVID-19 pandemic – Apr 14, 2020

The province recently introduced new clinical guidance for the prescription of opioids that could make it easier for drug users to get access to safe drugs in an effort to reduce the risk of overdose and promote physical distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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