For the second consecutive month the BC Coroners Service is reporting a record-breaking number of illicit drug toxicity deaths and fentanyl-detected deaths.
In June, 175 people in the province died from an illicit drug overdose, surpassing the previous high of 171 in May.
The record high prior to May was 161 deaths reported in December 2016. B.C. has recorded four consecutive months with more than 100 illicit drug toxicity deaths.
“For the second month in a row, this province has experienced the highest number of deaths ever as a result of illicit substances with 175 lives lost, leaving behind grief and frustration while this public health emergency carries on into its fifth year,” B.C. chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said.
“We know the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people who use drugs, as it has all British Columbians. Access to key harm reduction services has been a challenge and our social networks are smaller.”
There have been 728 illicit drug deaths in B.C. this year, and the number of fatal overdoses in each health authority is at or near the highest monthly totals ever recorded.
The 175 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in June represent a 130 per cent increase over the 76 deaths during the same month last year.
Health officials say the novel coronavirus pandemic has contributed to an increase in overdose deaths. Contributing factors include an increasingly toxic drug supply due to the closure of international borders and a higher frequency of people using alone at home due to physical distancing measures.
“For those using substances — opioids or otherwise — please make sure you use only in the presence of someone who will call for immediate help if you need it, use at an overdose prevention or supervised consumption site, and have your drugs checked before using, if you can,” Lapointe said.
“The drug supply in our province is highly toxic and the risk of using alone is too high. Buddying up could save your life.”
The coroners service says the risks associated with the illicit drug market are unmanageable, and access to safe supply for those with this medical condition is essential to save lives. The coroner’s office is monitoring for the presence of hydromorphone in post-mortem toxicity results and has seen no evidence of a link between increased prescriptions and the rise in deaths.
Officials say it is increasingly clear this is not just an opioid epidemic with cocaine and methamphetamine/amphetamine detected in many drug deaths investigated.
But health officials say fentanyl remains their biggest concern. Post-mortem toxicology testing data published in this most recent report suggests an increase in the number of cases with extreme fentanyl concentrations in April, May and June 2020 compared with previous months.
“The number of lives lost over more than four years of a public health emergency is heartbreaking. That each one of these deaths was entirely preventable makes this emergency all the more tragic,” co-interim executive director at the BC Centre on Substance Use Dr. Perry Kendall said.
“It is quite clear what needs to be done: invest in a public health approach to substance use that promotes the health and equity of people who use drugs. This must include not only decriminalization, but also pharmaceutical alternatives to the toxic drug supply. Alongside investments in an evidence-based substance-use system of care to support recovery, treatment and harm reduction, these are the critical steps needed to finally end this emergency.”