The number of illicit drug deaths in B.C. well exceeded 100 in July, marking the fifth consecutive month where provincial totals surpassed triple digits.
On Tuesday morning, the provincial government held a press conference regarding the shocking rise in street drug deaths this year.
The number of deaths announced for last month was 175, which was also the third consecutive month where more than 170 suspected illicit drug deaths were reported to the BC Coroners Service.
To date, more than 900 people have died in B.C. in 2020.
The province said July’s totals were a 136 per cent increase from July 2019, when 74 deaths were reported.
“The number of people dying in B.C. due to an unsafe drug supply continues to surpass deaths due to homicides, motor vehicle incidents, suicides and COVID-19 combined,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner.
“This health emergency continues to take a tragic toll on people from all walks of life and in all communities of the province.”
Lapointe said access to key harm reduction services in the midst of a dual health emergency, alongside COVID-19, has been a challenge, and the extreme concentration of fentanyl being trafficked is resulting in deaths within moments of use.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the overdose crisis has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. The closure of international borders has led to an increasingly toxic drug supply and physical distancing measures have contributed to a higher frequency of people using alone at home.
“We know the toxicity of the drug supply is extreme and we see that in the results from the coroners service,” Henry said.
“I implore anybody who is using drugs right now, do not do it alone. You need to have your lifeguard there.”
Harm reduction advocate Guy Felicella, a former user who escaped Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside after battling homelessness and addiction for decades, gave an impassioned plea for policy changes that will support access to a regulated, safer supply of drugs.
“Every hour of every day our failed policies are forcing people to play Russian roulette, only the odds are growing against them,” he said. “It’s not just a single bullet in the chamber, it’s a full chamber and our bad policies are holding the gun.”
The province says there have been 909 illicit drug deaths to date in 2020 in B.C., and the number of deaths in each health authority is at or near the highest monthly totals ever recorded.
The number of non-fatal overdose incidents is also increasing, with a record high of more than 2,700 calls reported by BC Emergency Health Services in July.
According to the provincial government, from April to July 2020, approximately 13 per cent of cases with fentanyl detected had extreme fentanyl concentrations (exceeding 50 micrograms per litre) as compared to 8 per cent between January 2019 and March 2020.
Further, it said a review of completed cases from 2016 to 2019 indicates that the top four detected drugs relevant to illicit drug toxicity deaths were fentanyl (83 per cent), cocaine (50 per cent), methamphetamine and/or amphetamine (34 per cent) and heroin (15 per cent).
Age-wise, the province said between April 2020 and July 2020, 35 per cent of illicit drug toxicity deaths involved people 50 years of age or older, compared to 26 per cent between January 2020 and March 2020.
As to where these deaths are occurring, the province said in 2020, 85 per cent occurred inside (56 per cent private residence; 29 per cent other residences, including social and supportive housing, shelters and hotels), while 14 per cent occurred outside, such as in vehicles, sidewalks, streets and parks.
— With files from Richard Zussman