VICTORIA — British Columbia recorded 175 overdose deaths in July as paramedics responded to a record 2,706 non-fatal overdoses, prompting health officials to call for greater access to a safer supply of drugs as a top priority.
The province had its highest-ever overdose fatalities in June, with 177 deaths due to extreme concentrations of illicit fentanyl in street drugs after border closures stopped the flow of substances typically trafficked in the province.
The coroners service said Tuesday the death toll in July represents a 136 per cent increase over the 74 deaths during the same month last year.
A spokeswoman with Emergency Health Services said non-fatal overdoses reached a high of 2,399 in November 2016 before that number was surpassed last month.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry joined chief coroner Lisa Lapointe in calling for a robust response to the overdose crisis, saying it's discouraging that pandemic-related measures such as physical distancing have contributed to overdose fatalities as people use drugs alone.
"I implore anybody who's using drugs right now, do not do it alone. You need to have your lifeguard there," Henry said, referring to the presence of someone with the overdose-reversing medication naloxone.
However, Henry said street drugs are increasingly being cut with substances including benzodiazepines, non-opioids often prescribed for anxiety, which makes reversal of an overdose with naloxone more difficult.
The onus is on both the provincial and federal governments to act swiftly in addressing the overdose crisis, Henry said.
"It's not been recognized as the public health emergency that it is across the country," she said, adding there's a misconception that prescription opioids are causing overdoses.
Henry has called for the decriminalization of small amounts of drugs for personal use, and last week, Canada's chief medical health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, made the same suggestion, saying it's one step that could be taken to help address a recent spike in fatal overdoses in the provinces including B.C., Alberta and Ontario.
A temporary federal exemption of the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act in response to the pandemic led to new provincial guidelines allowing doctors to prescribe substitute medications, including hydromorphone, for users of opioids.
However, the exemptions will expire at the end of September.
Leslie McBain, spokeswoman for Moms Stop the Harm, said that group, along with others including the BC/Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors and the BC Association of People on Opioid Maintenance, have stopped attending government-convened committees after several years of participation due to an inadequate response from the province.
McBain, whose 25-year-old son, Jordan Miller, died of an overdose in February 2014, said the groups wrote to Premier John Horgan on Aug. 14 but have not received a response.
Horgan was not immediately available for comment, but Mental Health Minister Judy Darcy said in a statement that the impacts of the toxic drug supply are being felt across Canada.
Toronto recorded 27 overdose deaths in July, a record for that city, but 41 people died in Vancouver that month, followed by 53 in June as British Columbia is disproportionately affected by the crisis.
McBain said the advocacy groups were brought together by B.C.'s Overdose Emergency Response Centre many times.
"What we have found over this time is that the advice or the wisdom that we have as people with lived and living experience was never included in the policies, so we felt really tokenized," she said.
"So we decided to step away until we get meetings with the higher-level ministers and the premier so we can really see where we're at with our advocacy. We feel like we're spinning our wheels right now."
Henry said peer support workers and advocacy groups have pushed the province to take initiatives in addressing its high number of overdoses.
"They are critical, their voice is critical at our table. I will continue to reach out and I know the value of people with lived experience and families that are dealing with these issues," she said.
Guy Felicella, peer clinical adviser with the Overdose Emergency Response Centre and the BC Centre on Substance Use, said the voices of people with personal experiences are vital because they understand issues such as discrimination and stigma against drug users battling a chronic relapsing condition of addiction.
"It breaks my heart that people who use drugs are a symbol of tokenism at the table when they should be the main ingredient, and until that changes, unfortunately, people are walking away," said Felicella, who overdosed six times before seeking treatment.
"It's extremely challenging for me to watch the lack of action that's implied in this crisis when I see the response on the COVID side of things."
Almost 6,000 people have fatally overdosed in B.C. since 2015 before a provincial health emergency that is still in effect was declared by the province in 2016.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 25, 2020.
Camille Bains, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said more than 6,000 people have died from fatal overdoses since 2015, and that 171 people died in May.