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Major spike in overdose deaths in Interior Health region amid COVID-19 pandemic

A man is revived with Naloxone by paramedics after experiencing a drug overdose in Kelowna in 2017.
A man is revived with Naloxone by paramedics after experiencing a drug overdose in Kelowna in 2017. Global News File

Disturbing new data released by the BC Coroners Service shows B.C. recorded the highest-ever monthly total for suspected drug overdose deaths in May, including a significant spike in the Interior Health region.

Province-wide, 170 people lost their lives to an illicit drug overdose in May, which surpasses the previous high of 161 deaths in December 2016.

In the Interior Health region, 24 people died in May, an 84 per cent increase over the same month last year (13). It’s the highest single-month death toll since March 2019.

READ MORE: B.C. overdose crisis worsens amid COVID-19 pandemic

“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,” said chief coroner Lisa Lapointe.

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Health officials say the drug supply is becoming increasingly unpredictable and highly toxic due to border closures and travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Click to play video 'Downtown Vernon overdose prevention site proves controversial' Downtown Vernon overdose prevention site proves controversial
Downtown Vernon overdose prevention site proves controversial – May 12, 2020

“Unemployment, social isolation, declining mental health and increased alcohol and substance use are also the reality for so many right now,” said Judy Darcy, minister of mental health and addictions.

Reporting by Global Okanagan further reveals that the slow roll out of ‘safe supply’ in small B.C. communities combined with a ‘sudden windfall’ of CERB cash is refueling the crisis in the Interior.

Daryl Meyers, executive director of Pathways Addictions Resource Centre in Penticton, B.C., said the health authority should encourage more doctors and nurse practitioners to prescribe chronic drug users with a clean supply of narcotics, as seen in larger urban centres.

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

B.C. is the first province in the country to introduce clinical guidance for health-care providers to prescribe pharmaceutical-grade controlled substances to illicit drug users.

“We know that in Penticton, the majority of overdoses here are young men living alone and those people would be great candidates for having a clean drug supply,” said Meyers.

Click to play video 'Interior Health issues overdose, fentanyl alert for Penticton' Interior Health issues overdose, fentanyl alert for Penticton
Interior Health issues overdose, fentanyl alert for Penticton – Feb 6, 2020

Dr. Silvina Mema, medical health officer with the Interior Health Authority (IHA), told Global News that about “a dozen” physicians are involved with prescribed supply, and that the health authority is recruiting more health care professionals to take part.

There is also a tidal wave of government money being funneled into the illicit drug market.

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Bob Hughes, the executive director of Ask Wellness in Kamloops, said some clients living in social housing, who are already receiving provincial income supplements, filed for CERB and are receiving it even though they don’t qualify.

The emergency financial aid was designed for people out of work due to the pandemic, not those already on income assistance.

READ MORE: B.C. records highest ever number of opioid deaths in May

“We’ve seen in our buildings where people are receiving this amount of money and it’s translating into an abundance of drugs and alcohol,” Hughes said.

“It is just fueling further despair and trauma on our streets,” he said.

There have been 554 illicit drug deaths to date in 2020 in British Columbia.

Click to play video '‘I feel a sense of injustice’: family questions if more could have been done to prevent OD death at Penticton shelter' ‘I feel a sense of injustice’: family questions if more could have been done to prevent OD death at Penticton shelter
‘I feel a sense of injustice’: family questions if more could have been done to prevent OD death at Penticton shelter – Dec 3, 2019

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

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