155 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in B.C. in February

February is second consecutive month in which average number of daily deaths was above 5

FIGURES released by the British Columbia Coroners Service identify 155 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in February – the 11th consecutive month in which the province has recorded more than 100 lives lost.

“The number of deaths due to toxic illicit drugs in February highlights the ongoing critical risk to public health and safety from the illicit drug market,” said Lisa Lapointe, B.C.’s Chief Coroner, on Wednesday. “I extend my sincere sympathy to everyone who has lost a beloved family member or friend to substance use. The continued tragic and unprecedented rate of death in B.C. highlights the urgent need for a multi-faceted, evidence-based and accessible system of care for those experiencing problematic substance use.”

The total number of deaths is the largest ever recorded in the month of February and an increase of 107% over the total number of deaths recorded in February 2020. The average of 5.5 lives lost each day makes February the second consecutive month in which the average number of daily deaths was above 5. The 1,724 deaths recorded in 2020 work out to an average of 4.7 deaths a day.

Also of note, 15% of the lives lost in 2021 were people 60 years of age and older and 40% were over age 50. These increasing numbers continue a trend that has been observed in older age cohorts over the last several years.

Increased variability and toxicity in the drug supply continues to significantly contribute to the overall number of suspected deaths. Carfentanil, a more lethal analogue of fentanyl, was detected in 18 of the 155 deaths (12%), an increase from the January total of 14, the largest monthly figure recorded since April 2019.

“This data emphasizes the alarming increase in the toxicity of the illicit drug supply throughout B.C.,” Lapointe said. “Across the province, the risk of serious harm or death is very real for anyone using a substance purchased from the illicit market. Decisive action is urgently needed to ensure an accessible, regulated safe supply and to provide people with the supervised consumption, treatment and recovery services they need.”

Additional key preliminary findings are below. Data are subject to change:

* A total of 329 illicit drug toxicity deaths were reported in the first two months of 2021.

* B.C.’s total overall death rate in 2021 is 38 deaths per 100,000 individuals.

* 81% of the deaths in 2021 were male.

* The communities experiencing the highest number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2021 are Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria.

* By health authority in 2021, the highest number of illicit drug toxicity deaths were in Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health Authorities (116 and 90 deaths, respectively), making up 63% of all such deaths during this period.

* By health authority in 2021, the highest death rates were in Northern Health (58 deaths per 100,000 individuals) and Vancouver Coastal Health (44 per 100,000 individuals).

* By health service delivery area in 2021, the highest death rates were in northeast, Vancouver, northwest, northern Interior and Thompson Cariboo.

BC Liberal Critic for Mental Health and Addictions, Trevor Halford, said: “Tragically, 155 families mourned the loss of loved ones this past month as the opioid crisis continues to worsen with every year that goes by. Each month we see a new record number of deaths and each month we see the same lack of a plan from this government to help fix this crisis. The addiction crisis is worse than ever under this government and we should be doing everything we can to keep people alive, not blocking or reducing lifesaving treatment facilities like the NDP is currently doing.”

Halford added: “Across B.C., communities are being turned down for increased services — or in the case of Pathways in Penticton, being told to close their doors. From youth to First Nations communities, people are crying out for this NDP government to provide vulnerable people with the supports they need to prevent more people from falling through the cracks. Once again, we are again calling for [Premier] John Horgan and the NDP to finally deliver a seamless mental health and addictions system.”

MINISTER of Mental Health and Addictions, Sheila Malcolmson, said in a statement: “In February, we lost 155 people to a toxic illicit drug supply in B.C. They were taken too soon. It’s a heartbreaking loss. Front-line workers, caregivers, families and peers deserve our gratitude as they respond to overdoses and care for loved ones during a pandemic that has made everything worse.

“We know people are hurting now, and we must do more to stop this terrible surge in overdose deaths. Stigma and criminalization are driving people to use alone, and the pandemic is pushing people further into isolation. The illicit drug supply chain is dramatically more toxic and, tragically, more lethal. The effects of two public health emergencies have taken an immense toll.

“In 2019, before the pandemic, we brought overdose deaths down for the first time since 2012. According to the BC Centre for Disease Control, our collective efforts to add more supervised consumption services, increased access to naloxone and treatment options made a difference and saved lives. We brought deaths down before and we’ll do it again.

“Despite the enormous challenges ahead, our government is committed to supporting and separating people from the poisoned drug supply. We are resolved to continue our work to add more treatment and recovery options, more services and supports for communities throughout B.C., and to work with the federal government to move forward on decriminalization. We are going to continue building the culturally safe, evidence-based system of mental health and addictions care people deserve.”