The BC Coroners Service has released some disturbing new numbers around drug overdose deaths.
In May, the province recorded 170 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths — the highest monthly total ever recorded in B.C. It equates to about 5.5 deaths a day.
It’s a 93-per-cent spike over the number of deaths in May 2019, and a 44-per-cent increase over April 2020.
In comparison, 53 people died from COVID-19 in the same month.
The B.C. cities with the highest number of opioid deaths were Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria.
“It is both sad and deeply frustrating to see the number of illicit drug deaths reach a new high in B.C. four years after the declaration of a public health emergency,” Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner, said in a release. “Despite the many collective efforts directed at this crisis, the toxic drug supply continues to take the lives of our family members, friends and colleagues.”
The increase appears to be connected to increased toxicity of drugs compared with previous months. The coroners’ report found there was a surge in the number of cases with extreme fentanyl concentrations.
“The number of deaths in each health authority is at or near the highest monthly total ever recorded,” the report said. “However, Island Health has surpassed its highest number by 36 per cent (38 deaths in May).”
The report says 70 per cent of people who died of illicit drug deaths so far this year were 19 to 49 years old.
In 2019 and 2018, about 67 per cent of deaths recorded were in this age range.
The coroners service says 56 per cent of the deaths in May occurred in private homes, 26 per cent in other residences, 15 per cent happened outdoors and one per cent inside other locations.
There were no deaths recorded at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites.
“We still know that illicit drug toxicity death rates in B.C. remain the highest for any jurisdiction in Canada, and every region in B.C. has been impacted,” Lapointe added. “That said, were it not for the dedicated efforts taken to date, the death toll would be higher.
“We must continue to build on further access to safe supply in B.C. and for a regulated, evidence-based, supportive treatment and recovery system as important pillars in preventing future deaths.”
Advocates for drug users had been warning for weeks that the COVID-19 pandemic will exacerbate the province’s existing opioid overdose crisis.
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.
She has made similar statements in the past years also.
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.
“The overdose crisis is taking a toll on families and communities across this province, and we know the second public health emergency of COVID-19 is adding additional challenges,” Henry said Thursday.
“There is no simple solution, but we remain committed to doing all we can to support people who use drugs, as well as their families, friends and loved ones.”
There have been 554 illicit drug deaths to date in 2020 in British Columbia.
-with files from Simon Little