B.C. reports another record-high monthly total – 175 – of illicit drug deaths in June

THE BC Coroners Service has published updated reports on illicit drug toxicity deaths and fentanyl-detected drug deaths for the first six months of 2020, with 175 illicit drug toxicity deaths reported in June.

“For the second month in a row, this province has experienced the highest number of deaths ever as a result of illicit substances with 175 lives lost, leaving behind grief and frustration while this public health emergency carries on into its fifth year,” said Lisa Lapointe, Chief Coroner, BC Coroners Service. “We know the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people who use drugs, as it has all British Columbians. Access to key harm reduction services has been a challenge and our social networks are smaller.

“For those using substances – opioids or otherwise – please make sure you use only in the presence of someone who will call for immediate help if you need it, use at an overdose prevention or supervised consumption site, and have your drugs checked before using, if you can. The drug supply in our province is highly toxic and the risk of using alone is too high. Buddying up could save your life.

“I also want to note the Province’s new risk mitigation guidance in the context of dual public health emergencies and encourage clinicians to support those who are at risk of overdose because of the toxic drug supply. The risks of the illicit market are unmanageable, and access to safe supply for those with this medical condition is essential to save lives. We are monitoring for the presence of hydromorphone in post-mortem toxicity results and have seen no evidence of a link between increased prescriptions and the increase in deaths. It is clear this is not just an opioid epidemic, with cocaine and methamphetamine/amphetamine detected in many drug deaths we investigate. However, we do know that illicit fentanyl remains the most significant driver in the tragic number of deaths our communities are experiencing.”

The illicit drug toxicity death total for June surpasses the previous highs of 171, reported in May 2020, and 161 reported in December 2016. B.C. has recorded four consecutive months with over 100 illicit drug toxicity deaths.

“Today’s report clearly shows us that the tragedy of overdose deaths from the toxic street drug supply in B.C. continues to escalate. While much effort has been made to reduce harm, remove stigma and provide the care that people living with addiction need, the impacts of the pandemic have made the situation dire for too many,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, Provincial Health Officer. “We remain focused on this critical work and will not let up. For the families who have lost loved ones, please know we too feel your loss. These are our brothers and sisters, our neighbours, our community members. All of us must reach out and let people who use drugs know they are not alone and there is help.”

Once again, post-mortem toxicology testing data published in this most recent report suggests an increase in the number of cases with extreme fentanyl concentrations (exceeding 50 micrograms per litre) in April, May and June 2020 compared with previous months.

“The number of lives lost over more than four years of a public health emergency is heartbreaking. That each one of these deaths was entirely preventable makes this emergency all the more tragic,” said Dr. Perry Kendall, co-interim Executive Director at the BC Centre on Substance Use. “It is quite clear what needs to be done: invest in a public health approach to substance use that promotes the health and equity of people who use drugs. This must include not only decriminalization, but also pharmaceutical alternatives to the toxic drug supply. Alongside investments in an evidence-based substance-use system of care to support recovery, treatment and harm reduction, these are the critical steps needed to finally end this emergency.”

There have been 728 illicit drug deaths to date in 2020 in B.C., and the number of deaths in each health authority is at or near the highest monthly totals ever recorded.

“Creating a permanent, accessible safe supply and decriminalizing people who use drugs are both urgently needed to stop overdoses and should have happened long ago,” said Guy Felicella, peer clinical advisor, Overdose Emergency Response Centre and BC Centre on Substance Use. “I’m tired of waiting for what’s necessary when the calls for these changes have been made over and over again. And I’m tired of seeing people die while waiting for access to a safer supply or access to detox or to get into recovery. The waiting is killing people.”

Dr. Shannon McDonald, acting Chief Medical Officer of the First Nations Health Authority, added that the impact on First Nations people in B.C. from this crisis is higher than the rest of the province’s population.

“Indigenous people continue to be disproportionately impacted by this worsening crisis. Real change is needed and we could begin with more of what works, namely harm reduction and a safe drug supply,” McDonald said. “In the meantime, let us be kind to those who use substances to escape the pain they are living with and lovingly remember those we have lost.”

 JUDY Darcy, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, said in a statement: “In June, 175 British Columbians lost their lives because of an illegal drug supply that is more toxic than ever. They were people who were loved, made a difference in someone else’s life and deserved every chance to live and thrive.

“Prior to COVID-19, we were headed in the right direction, with overdose deaths decreased 36% year-over-year – the first time overdose deaths had gone down since 2012. There was so much more to do to save more lives, but our plan and our collective efforts were making a difference. Now because of COVID-19, the drug supply has become more toxic than ever before – with tragic consequences.

“We’re redoubling our efforts to save more lives and connect more people to treatment and recovery. We’re opening new treatment beds, expanding our efforts to separate people from the toxic drug supply, launching new teams to help people stay connected to treatment and working in closer partnership with First Nations to support culturally safe Indigenous-led solutions.

“The weight of two public health emergencies in this province is taking an enormous toll on everyone. Many are struggling financially and enduring months of loneliness and isolation. People are missing the connections that mean so much to them.

“I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks and sincere gratitude to the thousands of dedicated people working day and night on the front lines of the overdose crisis. They are giving their hearts and souls to help others and weathering a storm that feels endless. You are true heroes in this fight.

“Now, more than ever, people who use substances need our support, not judgment. British Columbians showed the world what we could do by coming together around COVID-19. Let’s demonstrate that same commitment and kindness when it comes to battling B.C.’s other public health crisis.”

MEANWHILE, Jane Thornthwaite, B.C. Liberal Critic for Mental Health and Addictions, said: “It’s an absolute tragedy to witness overdose deaths continue to rise in British Columbia month after month. The NDP mental health and addictions strategy is clearly not working because there is no pathway to get people well in B.C., leaving those with addictions without support. We have been pushing the NDP to produce a plan for three years but sadly there continues to be no meaningful action taking place from this government to stop this endless death toll of human misery.”

She pointed out that the report shows that no region in B.C. is unaffected as the number of illicit drug overdose deaths in each of the six B.C. health authorities is either at or near its highest monthly total ever recorded. The overdose deaths recorded in June amount to roughly 5.8 deaths per day. 

Thornthwaite added: “Now more than ever we need a comprehensive plan to fill the gaps in the system exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s time for government to take real action and start funding the services people desperately need to get them off drugs and into a seamless continuum of care of treatment and recovery.”

She said that as the monthly overdose death toll continues to increase it is time for the NDP to invest in an effective mental health and addictions system.