Overdose deaths in B.C. up 74 per cent in 2020

·3 min read

A BC Coroners Service report shows 2020 was the province’s worst year yet for overdose deaths.

There were 1,716 deaths related to illicit drugs in 2020 in B.C., a 74 per cent increase over the 984 deaths recorded by the coroners service in 2019. The number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2020 equates to about 4.7 deaths per day, which is two deaths per day higher than in 2019.

Out of the total number of illicit drug-related deaths in the province 281 were in the Interior Health region, up from 138 deaths in the region in 2019. Interior Health has the third highest death rate per 100,000 people in the province at 33.7, twice the rate of deaths in the region in 2019.

The toxic illicit drug supply in British Columbia has claimed more lives than vehicle collisions, homicides, suicides and prescription-drug related deaths combined, said the province’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe.

As of Feb. 11, 1,269 people have died as a result of COVID-19 in B.C.

“The impacts of COVID-19 highlighted the immensely precarious situation of those experiencing problematic substance use in our province,” Lapointe said. “Decades of criminalization, an increasingly toxic illicit drug market and the lack of timely access to evidence-based treatment and recovery services have resulted in the loss of thousands of lives in B.C. It’s clear that urgent change is needed to prevent future deaths and the resulting grief and loss so many families and communities have experienced across our province.”

One of the "most insidious impacts" of the COVID-19 pandemic is the increased toxicity in the drug supply due to disruptions in the supply chain across the country, said Sheila Malcolmson, B.C.'s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions.

"We stepped up our response to this emergency in B.C., but the illicit drug supply is dramatically more toxic than a year ago — and tragically, more lethal. Combined with the stigma that drives people to use alone and a pandemic that isolates them even further, you have a recipe for a terrible surge in overdose deaths," Malcolmson said in a statement released Thursday.

The coroners report says there were 152 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in December 2020 alone, a 130 per cent increase over the 66 deaths in December 2019 and a four per cent decrease from the 158 deaths that occurred in November 2020.

Sixty-nine per cent of those dying in 2020 were aged 30 to 59, and males accounted for 81 per cent of the deaths. Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria experienced the highest number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2020. Kelowna saw the highest amount of deaths in the Okanagan with 61 in 2020, compared to 34 deaths in 2019 and 56 in 2018.

Fentanyl or similar substances were detected in more than 80 per cent of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2020. Cocaine and methamphetamine were the next most commonly detected drugs.

The report states that 84 per cent of illicit drug toxicity deaths occurred inside (56 per cent in private residences and 28 per cent in other residences including social and supportive housing, single-residence occupancies, shelters, and hotels and other indoor locations) and 14 per cent occurred outside in vehicles, sidewalks, streets and parks among other locations.

Illicit drug toxicity death rates among individuals aged 19 to 59 has been trending downwards over several months, while rates among B.C. residents aged 60 and up have been trending upwards. Rates among youth aged 18 and under remain low.

The illicit drug toxicity death rates trended downward in the Island Health region over the past several months in 2020, however, all other health authority rates remained high.

The coroners report also noted no deaths have been reported at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites in the province.

Dale Boyd, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Times-Chronicle