British Columbia

B.C. marks 3rd straight month with more than 170 overdose deaths

The BC Coroners Service has detected "a sustained increase" of illicit drug toxicity deaths since the first peak of the pandemic in March, and it's now confirming five straight months with more than 100 such deaths.

'Sustained increase' of illicit drug toxicity deaths detected since pandemic's 1st peak: BC Coroners Service

British Columbia's Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe pictured at a February announcement. Lapointe was joined by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on Tuesday morning to release the latest statistics on deadly overdoses in the province. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

British Columbia has nearly matched its monthly record for deadly illicit drug overdoses, with 175 deaths during the month of July.

The BC Coroners Service saw 177 fatalities in June, which surpassed the previous high of 174 deaths in May. The service initially reported 175 deaths for June but updated the number on Tuesday.

A statement said the service has detected "a sustained increase" of illicit drug toxicity deaths since the first peak of the pandemic in March, and it's now confirming five straight months with more than 100 such deaths.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who has led the response to the province's concurrent health crises of overdoses and the novel coronavirus, said the pandemic has led to more people using and dying alone.

"It's dismaying to know that all of the work that we have done around responding to COVID-19 has been a contributing factor to the numbers of deaths that we're seeing from the toxic drug supply here in British Columbia and across Canada," she said at a news conference Tuesday.

Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said the pandemic has restricted access to critical harm-reduction services. Still, she urged people to go to supervised injection site or drug overdose prevention sites to check substances for toxicity and not to use alone.

"If you are using illicit substances, whether it be fentanyl, cocaine or methamphetamine, [use] only in the presence of someone else," she said.

Just under 80 per cent of people who have died of an overdose in B.C. this year were men. Eighty-five per cent of the deaths happened indoors. No deaths have been reported at supervised injection sites or drug overdose prevention sites.

There was a 93 per cent increase in the number of Indigenous people dying of an illicit overdose from January to May. Indigenous people make up 3.4 per cent of the population in B.C., but accounted for 16 per cent of overdoses in that time period — a rate five times higher than other B.C. residents.

Fentanyl remains the most significant driver in the high number of deaths across all demographics. Opioids were found among all those who died, along with cocaine and the stimulants methamphetamine and amphetamine.

Safe supply, decriminalization crucial: officials

Medical leaders, physicians and advocates speaking Tuesday all called for the same measures to save lives. They pushed for decriminalization, a safe supply for users and erasure of the stigma surrounding substance use. 

"Given the toxicity of the drug supply, now is the time for all of us to demonstrate compassion and empathy," said Lapointe.

Lapointe and Henry described the current toxicity of the supply as "extreme," made more toxic than ever before due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry in February. Henry join B.C.'s Chief Coroner on Tuesday to release the latest statistics on deadly overdoses in the province. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

Officials have said border closures during the pandemic have disrupted the usual flow of fentanyl into B.C., leading the supply to be replaced by an unstable and unpredictable substances produced locally by those who might be inexperienced. 

"The quality control has never obviously been there with fentanyl, but it's that much worse now, when drug traffickers and dealers are throwing the kitchen sink and whatever they have to make the product," said Dr. Dan Kalla, head of emergency medicine at St. Paul's Hospital in downtown Vancouver. 

Kalla also urged officials to act on decriminalization and safe supply.

"I promise you, you're not stopping anybody by keeping it criminal and prosecuting the people who use as criminals rather than people with medical conditions and addictions issues," Kalla said.

Last month, B.C. Premier John Horgan called for a national plan to help stem the overdose crisis as he backed the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police in calling for the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs to be decriminalized.

More people are dying of illicit drug overdoses in B.C. than due to homicides, motor vehicle incidents, suicides and COVID-19 combined.

About 5,000 people in B.C. have died of illicit-drug overdoses since the public health emergency was declared in 2016.

Judy Darcy, B.C.'s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, said the province has escalated its response to the overdose crisis in an effort "to counter the effects of the pandemic."

"British Columbians showed the world what we could do when it came to COVID-19 ... We must do the same for the overdose public health emergency in this province and we must do it now," she said in a statement.

LISTEN | Dr. Dan Kalla, the head of emergency medicine at St. Paul's Hospital, speaks about B.C.'s overdose crisis and solutions needed to prevent deaths:


  • An earlier version of this story stated British Columbia matched its previous record for fatal illicit drug overdoses, with 175 deaths in July and 175 in June. In fact, while the BC Coroners Service initially reported 175 deaths in June, that figure was updated Tuesday to 177.
    Aug 25, 2020 10:05 AM PT

With files from CBC's The Early Edition and The Canadian Press