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B.C. overdose crisis worsens amid COVID-19 pandemic

Harm reduction has been declared an "essential service" amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

While B.C. has been successful at curbing the spread of COVID-19, new statistics reveal the other ongoing public health emergency in the province may be worsening.

Recently released data from the BC Coroners Service showed 113 people died from a suspected drug overdose in March. Exceeding 100 deaths in a month has not occurred since March 2019, it said.

The number of fatalities represents a 61 per cent increase over the number of deaths in February.

Between January and March, 46 people in the Interior Health region lost their lives because of an overdose, prompting the health authority to post an update on its website entitled “Double Trouble: Dual health crisis pose unique challenge.

READ MORE: Use of Vancouver’s overdose prevention sites down amid COVID-19 crisis

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The IH article says while B.C. had seen a steady yet slow decline in overdose deaths over the past two years, the first three months of 2020 were painting a different picture.

“Our team has been fielding calls from a number of harm reduction agencies and community partners in several communities over the last few weeks,” Interior Health said.

Click to play video: 'Fatal overdose numbers in B.C. during COVID-19 pandemic' Fatal overdose numbers in B.C. during COVID-19 pandemic
Fatal overdose numbers in B.C. during COVID-19 pandemic – May 18, 2020

Lesley Coates, the health authority’s harm reduction coordinator, says health officials are seeing an “increasingly unpredictable drug supply.”

Interior Health says it’s ensuring the COVID-19 pandemic response has not created a barrier for drug users to access harm reduction supplies and Opioid Agonist Treatment.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Ontario opioid crisis worsens during pandemic as services for drug users scale back

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“There is no doubt that it has been a particularly difficult period of time for many people, including people who use drugs, and some have been significantly impacted by this pandemic,” said Corinne Dolman, IH’s substance use director.

Medical health officer Dr. Karin Goodison says the COVID-19 pandemic may discourage people experiencing addiction from seeking help due to fear of contracting the virus.

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

“At the same time, people are more stressed and many have lost jobs. There is a real risk for mental health issues to be exacerbated, and for alcohol and drug consumption to increase,” Goodison said.

According to the B.C. Centre for Substance Use, COVID-19 is a virus that can cause a respiratory infection and other health problems, and fentanyl and other opioids can slow a person’s breathing rate, so COVID-19 may increase the risk of overdose death from opioids.

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

Goodison said harm reduction services have been declared an “essential service” and continue to be offered while maintaining physical distancing.

In Kelowna, 11 drug overdose deaths occurred in the first three months of this year. Thirty-three people died in all of 2019.

In Vernon, four people died in the first three months of the year. Fifteen people died in all of 2019.

Penticton overdose stats were not immediately available.

To learn more about how to mitigate the risk of an overdose amid COVID-19, click here. 

To find a drug checking location near you, click here.

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