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‘It’s horrific’: Interior Health sees record-breaking number of drug deaths in October

Click to play video 'Interior Health records record number of drug deaths in October' Interior Health records record number of drug deaths in October
WATCH: The Interior Health area set a tragic record in October. Last month the region recorded the most illicit drug deaths in a single month the region has ever seen. Thirty-one people died – Nov 26, 2020

The Interior Health (IH) area set a tragic record for illicit drug deaths in October.

The health area recorded the most illicit drug deaths in a single month the region has ever seen.

Thirty-one people died, the equivalent of one person each day.

That statistic was released in a report from the B.C. Coroners Service on Wednesday.

Read more: Interior Health issues drug warning over ‘electric blue fentanyl’ sold in Vernon, B.C.

The Coroners Service numbers show that drug deaths are once again on the rise in the Okanagan and advocates and health officials believe the pandemic is to blame.

In the Okanagan, drug deaths were down last year compared to the highs of 2017 and 2018, but in 2020 they’ve shot up again.

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As of the end of October, 102 people in the Okanagan had been killed by illicit drugs in 2020.

That’s more than in all of 2019, when 84 people died — and the year’s not over yet.

“It’s horrific,” said Kelowna mother Helen Jennens, who lost two sons to overdoses in 2011 and 2016.

“We thought we were making some headway with the numbers and actually were not.”

The increase in deaths is being blamed on the pandemic which is leaving people isolated, making it harder to access services, and impacting the drug supply itself.

“We are seeing a change in the toxicity of the drug supply. We are seeing higher concentrations of fentanyl (and) mixtures of drugs that are much more dangerous,” Interior Health medical health officer Dr. Karin Goodison said.

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Click to play video 'Illicit drug deaths in B.C., Okanagan on the rise: officials' Illicit drug deaths in B.C., Okanagan on the rise: officials
Illicit drug deaths in B.C., Okanagan on the rise: officials – Aug 25, 2020

Alison Houweling, who works for an Okanagan charity that offers addiction recovery programs, believes we are seeing a lot more domestic creation of drugs because of pandemic border restrictions.

“The people who are mixing the dope and selling it are behaving like chemists but they are not really chemists,” Houweling, the manager of community services and education for Turning Points Collaborative Society said.

“Nobody wants to see their customer base die but they are not cutting in the dope in ways that are keeping people alive.”

IH said it’s working to combat the upswing in illicit drug deaths during the pandemic by expanding overdose prevention services, drug checking, and addiction treatment.

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“We really encourage people to get your drugs checked so you can find out what’s in your drugs and make a decision about the safe way to use or dispose of it if it is not what you were expecting,” Dr. Goodison said.

Interior Health is looking at expanding access to what’s called “safe supply,” prescription medication that can serve as an alternative to the tainted drugs people buy on the illegal market.

However, Jennens thinks health officials should go even further when it comes to prescription alternatives to toxic street drugs.

She believes medical-grade heroin should be dispensed, something Interior Health said has been done elsewhere in B.C.

Read more: Coronavirus pandemic aggravates opioid crisis amid rise in overdoses, decline in services

Jennens argues that the types of prescription medication that are being used to help people avoid street drugs are simply acting as a band-aid, for some, leaving them vulnerable to seeking drugs from the illegal market.

“We’ll reduce the pressure on first responders, police [and] our emergency wards at the hospital, and we’ll save lives. If that isn’t the best bottom line, I don’t know what is,” Jennens said.

It’s an option Interior Health isn’t ruling out as it looks to increase access to safe supply around the large health region.

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Beyond health interventions, advocates and officials agree a major part of brining down drug deaths is combating the stigma.

Houweling said society needs to change its approach and view people dealing with substance use disorders as people with a health issue not criminals or addicts.

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