B.C. chief coroner calls for opioid crisis to be treated with same urgency as pandemic
170 people died of illicit drug overdoses in May, more than all deaths from COVID-19 in province
B.C.'s chief coroner says new numbers showing more people in her province have died of drug overdoses in one month than from COVID-19 all year is a "tragedy" and is calling on the federal government to treat the opioid crisis with same urgency as the pandemic.
On Thursday, the B.C. Coroners Service said 170 people died of illicit drug overdoses in May, the highest total ever recorded for a single month in provincial history.
According to provincial data, 167 people in B.C. have died from COVID-19 as of Friday. The annual death toll from overdoses was 554 as of May 31.
Lisa Lapointe, the province's chief coroner, said the "heartbreak" that the province has experienced as a result of the opioid crisis "has been immense."
"The numbers ... represent 170 people who were loved by their families, their friends and their colleagues," Lapointe told As It Happens host Carol Off.
Here is part of their conversation.
Can you just give us a better sense of who the people are who have died of these overdoses in British Columbia?
Primarily, it's men in their 20s, 30s, 40s, dying alone. That is one of the most significant risk factors. They are found sometime later by family or a friend who are concerned about their welfare.
We know that they come from all walks of life. There is a common misperception that it's only [happening] in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. But in fact, we have people dying in all of our communities, from rural, urban, from professional occupations to health care, to those in labour fields and the unemployed.
It's just a cross-section of people who are dying from this illness.
One of the things that you have cited is the extreme concentrations of fentanyl … found in people's systems. How do you account for that?
That's one of the things that we've noticed recently is that fentanyl certainly is more toxic. One of the reasons we're speculating is supply chain disruptions due to the pandemic and the closing of international borders and travel.
We know that local supply has kicked in and there is no shortage of [illicit] fentanyl available and the production of that, of course, is quite hit or miss. Not necessarily very scientific and not in regulated labs, so there's no quality control in the production of illicit substances.
The action that needs to follow is to decriminalize these substances, remove the stigma and treat this as a medical issue.- Lisa Lapointe, B.C.'s chief coroner
We feel that plays a significant role, particularly where we see a small spike in a community where four or five people are dying within a short period of time. We recently saw three deaths at the same time in the same location we know that's the result of this substance.
We also feel that the role of social isolating, out of necessity to prevent deaths due to COVID-19, has played a role where people are alone, and more and more people are alone, using substances alone.
What are the other reasons why COVID-19 may have contributed to these deaths?
We know that physical distancing that is required to lessen the impact of the virus has kept people isolated. Whereas we might have seen our friends and neighbours every day, now we can't. Those who use substances are already vulnerable and fairly isolated and that only increases their isolation.
In addition, some of the measures that were implemented to address the overdose crisis in B.C. — the provision of naloxone [a medication used to counter te effects of an overdose], overdose prevention centres, supervised consumption sites — the availability of those places has been diminished due to some of the impacts of the pandemic.
For those vulnerable people who need [those] businesses, which are already dangerously difficult to get, it has really only exacerbated their situation.
Do you think the federal government needs to step up and take bold actions in order to deal with this [crisis]?
I can't help but draw the parallel in B.C. between the overdose epidemic, [which] is a public health emergency that was declared in 2016, and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, which is also a public health emergency.
The response to the pandemic was immediate, compassionate. It would be wonderful if we saw the same response for those in our community who suffer from problematic substance use [and] the ability for widespread safe testing, a compassionate response, supporting people where they need it and eliminating the stigma associated with criminalization.
While there's certainly a lot of compassion demonstrated by our leaders, the action that needs to follow is to decriminalize these substances, remove the stigma and treat this as a medical issue, which it most certainly is.
Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A is edited for length and clarity.