851 British Columbians died of toxic drugs in first 5 months of year, coroner reports

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Members of Moms Stop the Harm walk down Hastings Street in Vancouver to mark the five-year anniversary of B.C.’s overdose crisis in April 2021.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Members of Moms Stop the Harm walk down Hastings Street in Vancouver to mark the five-year anniversary of B.C.’s overdose crisis in April 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

The 851 British Columbians who died of toxic drugs between January and May of this year make this the deadliest first five months of a calendar year since a public health emergency was declared in 2016.

In May alone, at least 160 people died as a result of suspected illicit drug overdoses, according to a BC Coroners Service report released Tuesday. That means, on average, more than five people died every day of the past month.

Last month's death toll is the second highest ever recorded for the month of May after last year, when 177 deaths were recorded as pandemic restrictions forced people into isolation.

The vast majority of deaths have occurred indoors — 56 per cent in private residences and 29 per cent in other residences including social and supportive housing, SROs, shelters and hotels.

The province's chief coroner says the deaths continue to have a "catastrophic impact" on every community across B.C.

"More than five years into this public health emergency, we continue to lose our loved ones, friends and neighbours at an almost unimaginable rate," said Lisa Lapointe in the written release.

The cities of Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria saw the highest number of overall deaths in the first five months of 2021. However, the highest mortality rate due to toxic drugs are in the Northern Health region, with 48 deaths per 100,000 people.

The provincial rate stands at 39 deaths per 100,000 people.

Lapointe said as the COVID-19 pandemic begins to wind down, the overdose epidemic must be fought with the same sense of urgency.

"We need to ensure that safe alternatives to toxic illicit drugs are available throughout the province, and that we are taking meaningful steps to reduce stigma and offer substance users access to the supports they need and are seeking," she said.

Increasingly toxic drug supply

According to the coroner's report, an increasingly toxic drug supply continues to be life threatening to people who use drugs.

Over a quarter of samples tested in April and May contained extreme concentrations of fentanyl — the highest rates reported since the beginning of 2019.

The more potent carfentanil analogue has been detected in 75 deaths in 2021.

Additionally, 60 per cent of returned tests in May were positive for benzodiazepines, which the coroners' service says create significant life-saving challenges for first responders when used in combination with opioids.

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