Calls grow for safer drug supply in B.C. amid continuing overdose deaths

B.C. health officials renewed calls on Monday for a safer drug supply and continued harm-reduction efforts, as the number of illicit drug overdose deaths remained at the level it was in 2016, when a provincial health emergency was declared.

B.C. chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said at a news conference at the B.C. legislature that 981 people died of suspected illicit drug overdoses in 2019, which represents an average of 2.7 deaths a day.

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In about four in every five illicit-drug deaths in 2019, fentanyl was detected in post-mortem testing.

Victoria is among the cities with the highest number of illicit-drug toxicity deaths in 2019, along with Vancouver, Surrey and Abbotsford.

The 981 deaths in 2019 represent a 36 per cent decrease from the number in 2018 but little change since the provincial health emergency was called four years ago.

Lance Stephenson, director of patient-care delivery with B.C. Emergency Health Services, said while deaths from overdoses have decreased, the number of overdoses remains high, prompting more than 65 calls for emergency help a day. “We’re still in a crisis,” he said.

The reduction in the number of deaths last year is attributed to the use of Naloxone, which counters the effects of opioid overdose, as well as to overdose-prevention sites.

Calls for bolstering those harm-reduction services and providing a regulated and safer drug supply come as Island Health plans to shut down overdose-prevention services in Courtenay on March 31.

The B.C. Coroners Service report released Monday shows that in the Comox Valley health area, which includes Courtenay, Comox and Cumberland, there were 15 illicit-drug-toxicity deaths in 2018, and 12 in 2019.

“We are deeply concerned for the welfare of our clients,” said Ashley Hancock, acting manager for the Courtenay site, operated by AIDS Vancouver Island. “Folks are pretty distraught. This is a service that has meant the difference between life and death.”

Island Health said in a statement last week that it is closing the overdose-prevention site because the service is under-utilized and statistics show more people are using drugs at home.

Katrina Jensen, executive director for AIDS Vancouver Island, has argued that 47 deaths have been prevented in the last three years at the site and four in the last month — lives that might not be saved if people use drugs alone.

The Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions said in a statement on Monday that it is monitoring the situation, and Island Health is working with its partners “to ensure people who use drugs in the Comox Valley will continue to have access to the health-care services they need, including harm-reduction supplies, and treatment and recovery supports.”

That is not the same as witnessing injection use, said Hancock, who worries the number of deaths will rise as a result of the closure.

Of those who died from illicit-drug toxicity in the province last year, 747 were men and 234 were women. Their ages ranged from 13 to 76.

The majority of those who died were men in their 30s, 40s and 50s, Lapointe said. That trend of mostly middle-age men using illicit drugs alone at home and being poisoned has remained a constant through the crisis. Eighty-seven per cent of deaths continue to occur indoors.

Lapointe said more than 5,000 people have died in B.C. since 2016 as a result of illicit-drug toxicity.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the reduction in numbers last year is encouraging but the crisis continues, with continued high rates of overdoses across the province, and growing numbers of young people with long-lasting health effects after overdosing.

The decrease in deaths, however, indicates harm-reduction measures are making a difference and access to a safer drug supply is needed, said Henry.

Dr. Perry Kendall, co-interim executive director at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, noted that some of those who are revived after overdosing suffer traumatic brain injury.

“We must now turn our attention toward implementing strategies to prevent overdoses from occurring in the first place — which must start with a legally regulated drug supply,” said Kendall.

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