More than 1,500 people have now died in 2021 due to B.C.'s illicit drug supply: coroner

·4 min read
Pairs of shoes representing lives lost to a drug overdose hang on the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver on International Overdose Awareness Day, Aug. 31, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Pairs of shoes representing lives lost to a drug overdose hang on the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver on International Overdose Awareness Day, Aug. 31, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

More than 330 people are believed to have died as a result of illicit drug use in British Columbia in August and September, according to the B.C. Coroners Service.

New statistics released Tuesday show that 181 people died in August, followed by 152 in September. The coroner said it was the largest number of deaths from illicit drugs ever recorded for those calendar months.

The latest reported fatalities bring the death toll for the first nine months of the year to 1,534 — a 24 per cent jump from the same period in 2020.

It also puts the province on track to eclipse last year's record high of 1,734.

More than 70 per cent of those who've died this year from illicit drugs were between the ages of 30 and 59, while men accounted for nearly 80 per cent of the total fatalities.

Deaths involving fentanyl accounted for 84 per cent of the total, down slightly from 2020, but the report said deaths linked to extreme fentanyl concentrations jumped to 13 per cent from eight per cent.

The highly powerful opioid carfentanil has been detected in 137 deaths so far this year, more than double the 65 recorded over the same period last year.

When B.C. declared a public health emergency in 2016 over the illicit drug supply, the death rate was 20.4 per 100,000 people.

The rate has now almost doubled to 39.7 per 100,000 people this year.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, B.C. had seen a decrease in deaths due to illicit drugs. But the pandemic reversed that trend, causing illicit drug-poisoning deaths to reach an all-time high.

The latest statistics come days after the provincial government said it would be applying to the federal government to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use, in an effort to reduce and prevent future deaths.

The move would make B.C. the first province in Canada to seek the exemption from Health Canada under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act.

If approved, the allowable threshold for illicit drugs would be 4.5 grams and would apply to those aged 19 and over.

On Tuesday, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson described the ongoing loss of life as "heartbreaking" and said she would be making an announcement later in the day about new treatment and recovery services in the province.

"At that time, I will be available to provide further comment on this latest report," she said in a written statement.

More resources for Fraser Health

Chilliwack mayor Ken Popove describes the overdose crisis in his city as "challenging."

"We may not have the highest number of deaths, but if you take it per capita, we are higher than both Surrey and Abbotsford," he told On the Coast host Gloria Macarenko.

"There's definitely a problem at this end of the valley."

The province announced Tuesday expanded treatment services for British Columbians living with addictions, with a special focus for people living in the Fraser Health region.

Malcomson, speaking during a late morning press conference, said the B.C. government is immediately adding 10 addiction-treatment beds at the Phoenix Society in Surrey.

The beds are available to adults with severe substance-use dependency and moderate mental-health needs living anywhere in B.C., including those involved in the criminal justice system.

"People who use drugs continue to die and so clearly we must do more," said Malcomson.

The minister also announced the creation of a new addictions medicine consult team at Burnaby Hospital.

Tina Lovgreen/CBC
Tina Lovgreen/CBC

Consult teams can provide constant addiction medicine expertise to hospitalized patients who need it and help people transition safely to substance-use services in the community, including outpatient clinics and access to medication, when their hospital stay ends.

The province is also funding another social worker to join existing teams at Surrey Memorial and Royal Columbian hospitals.

Fraser Health hospitals that do not have one of these teams will now benefit from a new expansion of the Virtual Health Addictions Clinic (VHAC) that they can direct patients to.

This virtual clinic opened in March and the province says it was at capacity due to high demand. Now, it is being expanded to offer services to more locations.

Popove said he's pleased with the province's new commitments.

"I think with more supports on the horizon, we should be able to be in better shape," he said.

Susan Wannamaker, executive vice president of clinical service delivery with the Provincial Health Services Authority, said having these new resources available for people in need is a step in the right direction.

"We are not without hope," she said.

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