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B.C.’s top doctor urges compassion in emotional response to record-breaking overdose deaths

Dr. Bonnie Henry’s emotional response to B.C.’s record-breaking drug overdose numbers in May
Dr. Bonnie Henry's emotional response to B.C.'s record-breaking drug overdose numbers in May

British Columbia’s top doctor became visibly emotional Thursday, as she responded to a record-breaking number of overdose fatalities in the province in May.

The BC Coroners Service says 170 people died of suspected overdoses last month, more than the total number of British Columbians who have lost their lives to the novel coronavirus.

“I cannot express how difficult this news has been to hear,” said Henry, fighting to hold back tears.

“These are our brothers and sisters, our co-workers, our sons, our daughters, our friends — our community.”

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

Henry has long been an advocate for aggressive and innovative ways to address the overdose crisis, which she described Thursday as “complex” and “rooted in pain.”

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Henry declared a public health emergency in B.C. in 2016 amid a wave of overdose deaths; since then drugs have claimed more than 5,000 lives in B.C.

Advocates for drug users have warned for months that the COVID-19 pandemic could exacerbate the crisis.

Highest monthly number of overdose deaths recorded in B.C.
Highest monthly number of overdose deaths recorded in B.C.

Henry said a rise in drug toxicity in all parts of the province has coupled with the isolating elements of the COVID-19 crisis has created a situation where people are using deadly drugs alone.

Last year, Henry called for the decriminalization of people who use drugs. The B.C. government was responded by saying controlled substances remain under federal jurisdiction.

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

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“We must look at alternatives to the criminal justice system in getting people the alternatives they need,” said Henry Thursday.

She said stigma, shame and fear of authorities continues marginalize drug users and stop them from asking for help.

She urged drug users to reach out and take advantage of new clinical guidance that allows doctors and some other health-care practitioners to prescribe a pharmaceutical-quality opioids or alternatives.

Highest monthly number of overdose deaths recorded in B.C.
Highest monthly number of overdose deaths recorded in B.C.

While B.C. has run several small-scale pilots that connect drugs with users, the new guidance is the most aggressive step B.C. has taken towards so-called “safe supply.”

B.C.’s chief coroner, Vancouver Coastal Health’s top doctor and a variety of experts and community leaders have called for expanded access to safe supply as a response to the crisis.

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Metro Vancouver’s top doctor calls for safe drug supply
Metro Vancouver’s top doctor calls for safe drug supply

Those “clean” drugs prevent fatal overdoses, while connecting drug users to options to address their addiction, argued Henry.

“It has to do with pain, whether it’s physical pain, psychic pain, whether its emotional pain. And unless we connect with people we don’t have an opportunity to address those underlying causes,” said Henry.

READ MORE: Metro Vancouver’s top doctor calls for safe drug supply as fentanyl overdoses rise

She also called on drug users to ensure they are using drugs with a buddy or the LifeGuard app to ensure they aren’t overdosing alone.

And Henry asked the public to be open and willing to connect with drug users in their lives to make sure they aren’t alone.

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“We must all show the compassion we have shown in addressing the COVID crisis, and the understanding for our families, our friends and our workmates, all people who use drugs, and let them know they can reach out for help,” she said.