A toxic drug supply continues to take its toll on B.C., health officials say.
At least 1,011 people died from suspected illicit drugs across the province between January and June of this year, with 159 of those deaths, or about 16 per cent, happening in June alone, according to data released Tuesday by the BC Coroners Service.
The Okanagan’s death toll was 69 until the end of June, putting the region on track to have one of its worst years for illicit drug deaths, the BC Coroners Service said.
The region’s deadliest year was 2017, when there were 155 deaths, following by 2020 with 143 deaths.
While the coroners service doesn’t say exactly where overdose deaths occur, it does list cities with the higher numbers.
From January until the end of June, there were 25 illicit drug deaths in Kelowna, compared to 60 for all of 2020. In Vernon, there were 16 such deaths in the same period, compared to 26 for all of 2020.
As people continue to die at an unprecedented rate in this province, drug toxicity is now the leading cause of death in B.C. for those aged 19 to 39 and is second in terms of reducing total potential years of life.
That’s despite ongoing investment in treatment options. Among other things, from 2020 to 2021, the province has invested in treatment beds, expanded opioid agonist therapy, and even expanded the scope of nursing to allow more practitioners to prescribe treatment for opioid use disorders. In 2017, for example, there were 773 clinicians prescribing opioid agonist treatment, compared to 1,671 in June of 2021.
“The deaths of more than 1,000 British Columbians in the first six months of 2021 is a tragic reminder that the toxic illicit drug supply remains a significant ongoing threat to public health and safety in communities throughout our province,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner, in a news release.
“The data released today highlights the immensity of this public health emergency and the need for a wide-scale response. This includes removing barriers to safe supply, ensuring timely access to evidence-based affordable treatment, and providing those experiencing problematic substance use with compassionate and viable options to reduce risks and save lives.”
Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, released a statement Tuesday, coinciding with International Overdose Awareness Day, saying the province is working hard to separate people from the poisoned drug supply and build more treatment beds and recovery options.
“Our government has been creating a new drug policy in Canada that will save lives by supporting access to prescribed safer supply and connecting people to health-care services, and by moving forward on decriminalization of people who use drugs. We will do everything we can to turn this drug poisoning crisis around,” she said.
The illicit drug supply in B.C. is both variable and increasingly toxic, with extreme fentanyl concentrations and carfentanil showing up more frequently in toxicology testing.
Post-mortem testing shows that fentanyl continues to be the substance involved in most drug-toxicity deaths – 85 per cent in the first six months of 2021.
Cocaine, methamphetamine and etizolam are also present in significant numbers of deaths. Data confirms, as it has throughout this public health emergency, that illicit substances are driving this health crisis.
Prescribed safe supply is not playing a role.
A Canadian organization, Mom Stop the Harm, said more needs to be done by local governments, especially when British Columbians have seen the province’s efforts towards the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If (the province) had reacted to the opioid crisis as efficiently and as quickly as COVID-19, we might not have lost so many lives,” said Helen Jennens, a Mom Stop The Harm spokesperson.
Jennens said every death is someone to somebody.
She lost both of her sons to illicit drug toxicity.
“I’m going to give you names: Ryan, Tyler. I can list off a billion names of actual people,” Jennens told Global News on Tuesday.
“Kids, beautiful kids, that had a full lives ahead of them are dead. Their families will be grieving for the rest of their lives. My life will never ever be the same. I had two sons; I don’t anymore.”
Moms Stop The Harm is hosting an awareness event at Kerry Park in Kelowna on Tuesday night.