British Columbia

An emotional Dr. Bonnie Henry urges family, friends to reach out to drug users after 170 die in May

Henry said one unintended consequence of measures against COVID-19 has been a worsening of the province's opioid crisis.

There have been 401 deaths due to opioid use in B.C. since COVID-19 measures began

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says the challenges of the overdose crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic have stretched public health resources to the limit. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

In an emotional address Thursday, B.C.'s provincial health officer pleaded with British Columbians to show the same compassion to people caught up in the opioid crisis as they are to victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. ​​​​Bonnie Henry was responding to news from the B.C. Coroner's Service earlier in the day that 170 British Columbians had died from using opioids in the month of May — the highest total ever recorded for a single month in provincial history. 

"I cannot express how difficult this news has been to hear," Henry said, her voice breaking.

"To those who have lost their loved ones and I share your grief."

In the three months since measures around COVID-19 were implemented in the province, a staggering 401 people have died from drug overdoses.

Henry said there were a number of factors responsible. For one, drug users are facing an extremely toxic street drug supply as a result of disruptions in the supply chain due to COVID-19.

In addition, the measures taken to physically distance from one another have made it more difficult to connect with friends and family, potentially isolating drug users.

"This can be very isolating for some people and ... makes it [easier] for them to hide their drug use from others even if they might otherwise have reached out for help or been very careful about not using alone," she said.

Watch Dr. Henry's comments on the opioid fatalities:

B.C.'s provincial health officer teared up as she shared her condolences with the loved ones of overdose victims. 2:47

Henry said if we can look out for one another during the COVID pandemic in B.C., we can do the same for the opioid crisis.

"Check up on your friends. Check up on those people, those workmates that you have that you may not be seeing as often. This is another time while we need to, while physically apart, connect with each other and support each other."

Karen Ward, a drug user advocate in Vancouver, said she was at a loss for words upon hearing the number of fatalities.

"It's so crushing and it's so angering," Ward said. 

Ward said compared to the response to the coronavirus pandemic, drug users feel like they been left behind. 

"It's not a competition ... [but] there never has been a consistent and sustained effort from all levels of government and the health authorities to address this," she said. "There's never been agreement on what to do."

Ward said there needs to be more effort put in to the many different factors affecting drug users — like creating a safe supply, finding adequate housing, addressing poverty and decriminalization.

Overall, 5,565 people have died from illicit drugs in the province since 2016. 

With files from On The Coast

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