BC sees record-high number of overdose deaths for third straight month

Aug 25 2020, 10:05 am

For the third straight month, BC recorded its highest-ever monthly total for deaths due to illicit substances, the BC Coroners Office said on Tuesday.

In total, 175 illicit drug toxicity deaths were reported in July – the third consecutive month with more than 170 suspected illicit drug deaths.

“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 Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe. “This health emergency continues to take a tragic toll on people from all walks of life and in all communities of the province. Access to key harm reduction services in the midst of a dual health emergency has been a challenge, and the extreme concentration of the illicit fentanyl being trafficked is resulting in deaths within moments of use.

“It is not uncommon for two or three people using together to die suddenly and with no opportunity to seek help,” said Lapointe. “Given the high prevalence of fentanyl detected in all fatal overdoses, if you are using illicit substances – whether it be fentanyl, heroin, cocaine or methamphetamines – it is critical that you use only in the presence of someone willing and able to inject naloxone and call for emergency assistance.”

Officials said July’s illicit drug toxicity death total represents a 136% increase over the number of deaths seen in July 2019 (74).

Lapointe said the BC Coroners Service has detected a “sustained increase” of illicit drug toxicity deaths since March, and the province has now recorded five consecutive months with over 100 illicit drug toxicity deaths.

“What the latest numbers show us is that the overdose crisis has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic and the unprecedented tragedy of death and loss to families in our province continues,” said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. “The toxicity of drug supply is extreme, and I implore anyone who may be using drugs to not do it alone. For friends and family members who are concerned about loved ones, reach out and connect with them and let them know they are not alone.”

Officials said that, once again, post-mortem toxicology testing data published in this report suggest an increase in the number of cases with “extreme fentanyl concentrations” (exceeding 50 micrograms per litre) in April, May, June, and July 2020 compared to previous months.

“Access to a safer supply remains the number 1, most urgently needed intervention to stop overdoses and stop people from dying,” said Guy Felicella, peer clinical advisor with the Overdose Emergency Response Centre and BC Centre on Substance Use. “Nobody chooses to become addicted to drugs and nobody chooses to die of an overdose. We can give people a choice though: to choose between the toxic, poisoned street drug supply that is fuelling these deaths or pharmaceutical alternatives in the form of a safer supply. Making that choice a reality is a matter of life and death.”

So far, there have been 909 illicit drug deaths in BC this year, and the number of deaths in each health authority is at – or near – the highest monthly totals ever recorded.

As well, 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 (BCEHS) in July.

“Paramedics are responding to and reviving overdose patients about 80 times a day, every single day in B.C.,” said Jon Deakin, paramedic practice leader with BCEHS. “It’s a lot. It’s the highest number of daily overdoses BCEHS has ever seen.”

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