British Columbia

More people died of an illicit drug overdose in first 8 months of 2020 than all of 2019: B.C. coroner

British Columbia recorded 147 overdose deaths in August, marking a drop in fatalities from the previous month as health officials continue to push for greater access to a safer supply of drugs.

147 deaths recorded in August, as figure remains high during pandemic

B.C.'s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe in Victoria on April 5, 2018. Last month, Lapointe said the province recorded 175 overdose deaths in July. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

British Columbia recorded 147 overdose deaths in August, pushing the death toll in the first eight months of 2020 past the total for all of 2019.

The BC Coroners Service said 1,068 people have died of a fatal overdose so far this year, compared to a total of 983 deaths last year.

The positive: The death toll in August represents a 16 per cent drop from the near-record number in July 2020.

The province recorded 176 overdose deaths in July following its highest-ever monthly death toll in June, when 181 people died from illicit drugs containing extreme concentrations of fentanyl. May saw nearly the same loss of life, with 180 deaths.

The preliminary numbers for May and June were announced as 174 and 177, respectively, but those figure were updated Wednesday.

The deaths from deadly overdoses in B.C. far outpace the number of deaths from COVID-19.

The number of men dying from a fatal overdose increased last month, while the fatality rate for women dropped. Most people who die of an overdose in B.C. continue to die alone indoors, statistics showed. 

Fatality rates in the Northern Health Authority, which have risen in recent months, remained high in August while rates in the Interior, Vancouver Coastal and Island health authorities dropped.

COVID-19 worsening overdose crisis

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe has said border closures during the COVID-19 pandemic have stopped the flow of typical drugs that come into B.C. and opened up business opportunities for those manufacturing even more toxic substances.

The previous monthly high of 161 deaths in December 2016 came eight months after the province declared a public health emergency that is ongoing.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has urged people to use drugs only in the presence of someone equipped with the overdose-reversing medication naloxone.

British Columbia Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry pictured on on Sept. 17. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Last week, she issued an order which is expected to soon allow registered and psychiatric nurses to write prescriptions for safer drugs that are an alternative to those potentially deadly drugs bought on the street.

Previously, only doctors and nurse practitioners have been able to prescribe drugs, including substitute medications for illicit-drug users.

Henry and Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, have called for a safe supply of drugs and the decriminalization of small amounts of drugs for personal use.

More than 5,000 people have died from an overdose in B.C. since the province declared the public health emergency in 2016. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of fatalities had been on the decline for the first time since 2012.

NDP and Green skirmish

While B.C.'s main political parties all decried the high numbers in the midst of their election campaign, BC Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau took umbrage at NDP Leader John Horgan's suggestion that her party prevented reform on mental illness policy earlier this year.

"[We] brought forward a bill to protect young people who were admitted to hospital after an overdose [which] would have allowed those children to stay under medical supervision for a week," Horgan said.

"The Green Party wouldn't support that bill. We took steps this summer to address the challenges that families faced when it comes to the scourge of opioids, and we were rebuffed by our colleagues in our so-called stable administration." 

In response, Furstenau said the bill was flawed.

"[We] listened to experts, including the chief coroner when they voiced concerns about the NDP's plan to detain youth. The experts were clear that this could actually lead to increased fatalities and would violate children's charter rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child," she said in a statement.

"The fact that Horgan is using a bill meant to help the most vulnerable children in the province as political cover for why he needs to go to a self-serving election in the middle of a pandemic is appalling." 

With files from Michelle Ghoussoub and The Canadian Press

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