British Columbia

B.C. records highest number of fatal overdoses in a single month, with 170 deaths

More people died after a drug overdose in B.C. last month than people who died from COVID-19 all year, new data from province confirmed Thursday.

Overdoses claimed more lives in May than COVID-19 has claimed all year in province

Paramedics respond to an overdose victim in an alley in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in May. More than 82 per cent of overdose deaths last month in B.C. involved fentanyl. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The BC Coroners Service said 170 people died of an illicit drug overdose in May, the highest total ever recorded for a single month in provincial history.

It's also more people than have died from COVID-19 in B.C. all year.

"It's frustrating to see the number of illicit drug deaths go up and to reach a new high ... It's sad to see this many people impacted, losing their lives," said Andy Watson, a spokesperson for the coroners service.

The province said 167 people have died of COVID-19 since B.C.'s first case of the virus was confirmed six months ago. The annual total for overdoses in B.C. was 554 as of May 31.

'Extreme' fentanyl concentrations

More than 82 per cent of overdose deaths in May involved fentanyl.

Watson said post-mortem toxicology testing suggests there were a greater number of cases with "extreme" concentrations of the opioid in May compared with previous months.

"The rate and the level of fentanyl concentration is the highest that we've seen it," Watson said Thursday.

"We know ... that the drug supply right now is highly toxic ... For people who are using drugs, it's a dangerous time right now."

B.C. was starting to see a drop in overdose deaths by the end of 2019, only to see a surge once the COVID-19 pandemic began. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

A statement from the coroners service said 70 per cent of drug overdose deaths this year were men, with 85 per cent of fatalities happening inside a home. 

No deaths have been reported at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites. The Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health authorities had the highest number of deaths.

Public health emergency enters its 4th year

The provincial government declared a public health emergency on April 14, 2016, as overdose deaths began to spike. Since then, more than 5,000 people have died.

B.C. was starting to see a drop in deaths by the end of 2019, only to see a surge once the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus created fears that the illegal drug supply would become even more toxic, with regular supply chains cut off. Limited access to supervised consumption sites, overdose prevention sites or drug-checking services also created a danger, Watson said.

The province published guidelines for a safe supply of drugs for users in March in an effort to prevent more deaths.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who has also been leading B.C.'s pandemic response, has called for the decriminalization of the possession of illegal drugs in the province for years. She has repeated her recommendation this year.

The province said in 2019 it would not follow Henry's recommendation, as decriminalization fell under federal jurisdiction.

With files from The Canadian Press


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