Editorial: More people are dying from drug overdoses than from COVID-19

New figures from Statistics Canada show that as COVID-19 death rates level off in B.C., illicit drug fatalities are becoming a greater cause for concern.

From mid-May to mid-October, when the virus was peaking through its second wave, 7,172 Canadians ages 0 to 44 died, an excess of 1,385 over the same period in previous years.

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Males accounted for 81 per cent of those excess deaths, and B.C. and Alberta led the nation. B.C. recorded 260 excess deaths among men in this age group, while Alberta reported 298.

If the cause were COVID-19, these figures would make no sense, since by far the highest death rate occurs in elderly patients. The average age of dying from COVID is 85.

In fact, the virus was not responsible for most of those excess fatalities. Specifically, nationwide, there were fewer than 50 COVID-19 fatalities in people under the age of 45. The real cause of those excess deaths in younger people, and particularly in men, was drug overdose.

We see that in the overall picture, provincewide. Throughout 2020, there were close to 1,600 overdose deaths in B.C. By comparison, just over 800 British Columbians died of COVID-19 throughout the year.

Some of those overdose deaths are due to more lethal forms of illicit drugs hitting the streets, ­particularly fentanyl derivatives.

But it’s also likely that missed medical interventions and social isolation, played a role.

If, as we hope, the arrival of a vaccine promises relief from the virus, what is to be done about the epidemic of drug deaths?

And it is an epidemic. The number of overdose deaths in our province has increased nearly five-fold since 2014.

One of the heart-breaking aspects of this plague is the number of young people, many teenagers, some of whom might overdose several times in a day.

They come to a treatment centre, receive a life-saving dose of naloxone, and return to the street where they overdose again.

Last year, a bill was tabled in the provincial ­legislature, giving physicians in hospitals the authority to hold a patient under the age of 19 for 48 hours, if necessary against the patient’s will.

That period could be extended to seven days if the attending physician believed it was necessary. The purpose was to allow the patient to be ­stabilized, before being released.

Several groups, among them the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, expressed their opposition. In addition, some ­mental-health experts suggested the legislation might backfire.

They feared rebellious young people would resent being involuntarily detained, and might well ramp up their destructive behaviour on being released. As a result, the bill was put on hold.

Premier John Horgan now says he wants the legislation reintroduced in the new year, noting: “I have difficulty as a parent understanding how it could lead to further deaths if we keep someone [in] hospital … to observe them for a few more days to potentially provide them with treatment and therapies and get them into a place where they could potentially recover — how that was an egregious affront to civil liberties.”

Horgan quoted the parents of an overdose victim who supported such a move.

There are indeed serious objections to taking this step, not least among them that our hospitals are already straining to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

Yet it is now nearly five years since a public health emergency was proclaimed — the first of its kind — in response to rising overdose deaths. And a new Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions has been set up specifically to fight this epidemic.

Yet the situation has only grown more bleak.

In that respect, involuntary detainment for a few days is a proposal at least worth trying. It can ­readily be shelved if the results don’t support it.

For it is clear something must be done, and equally, it is difficult to see what other realistic options there are. Certainly nothing attempted so far has worked.

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