Overdoses ‘sadly normalized’ in British Columbia: addictions minister

B.C. was starting to see a drop in overdose-related deaths by the end of 2019

A rising death toll from overdoses in B.C. during the COVID-19 pandemic has advocates, government officials and health-care workers concerned about a public health emergency that has been overshadowed by the response to the virus.

The BC Coroners Service says 113 people died in March of suspected illicit drug toxicity, the first time in a year that deaths from overdoses across B.C. exceeded 100.

The province declared opioid-related overdoses a public health emergency four years ago. More than 5,000 people have died from overdoses since then.

Judy Darcy, the minister of mental health and addictions, said overdose deaths have become routine to people in B.C.

“I think the reality is that over the last few years, sadly, I hate to say this, sadly, I think the overdose crisis in many peoples’ lives has come to be normalized,” she said.

B.C. was starting to see a drop in overdose-related deaths by the end of 2019, only to see a spike once the COVID-19 pandemic started.

“What you have is almost a COVID perfect storm for people at high risk,” Darcy said.

“We’re talking about two public health emergencies, we’re talking about a more toxic drug supply and we’re talking about people staying home because of COVID-19. The majority of people who die of overdoses die because they’re using alone.”

Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, said it’s difficult to sustain attention on the long-running health emergency in the face of a global pandemic.

“It’s hard to keep it top of mind and people are concerned — and rightly so — about COVID-19, which has had an impact on all of our lives, but it’s about a balance of risk,” she said in an interview.

Drug users living in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side face a bigger risk from overdoses than they do from COVID-19, Daly added.

Toronto also saw a spike in overdoses and related deaths in March and April. Toronto Public Health said the 19 overdose deaths in March were the highest they’ve been in a year.

The Northern Health authority has the highest rate of overdose deaths in B.C. Its medical officer blames a changing drug supply combined with physical distancing measures for part of the increase in deaths.

Another factor could be tied to government relief funds, said Dr. Rakel Kling.

“Some access to some of the government funding and a bit easier access to money from the COVID response could be contributing to different drug use as well,” Kling said in an interview.

Kling wouldn’t speculate on how government relief funds could specifically affect overdoses, besides allowing users to buy different drugs.

Part of the problem facing the heath authority in combating overdoses is its size, she said.

Northern Health is responsible for 300,000 residents ranging across a vast area from central B.C. to the border with the Northwest Territories and Yukon.

“While all of our communities have harm-reduction supplies, it could be quite a distance to access these supplies,” she said, adding that the problem is particularly acute in smaller communities.

To prevent overdoses during the COVID-19 pandemic amid fears the illegal drug supply would become more toxic, B.C. issued guidelines for a safe supply of drugs for users in April.

It allows doctors to prescribe alternative medications for those using illicit drugs, ranging from hydromorphone for opioid users to Dexedrine for those who use stimulants.

Karen Ward, a drug rights advocate as well as a drug policy and poverty reduction consultant with the City of Vancouver, believes the COVID-19 pandemic highlights how lives can be saved when resources and political will are directed at an issue.

“It’s a lack of political will and it’s a choice. This took time to turn into a disaster,” she said of the overdose death toll.

“Thousands of people have died and that didn’t have to happen.”

Darcy called the recent deaths “heartbreaking,” adding that overdoses are not being treated with less importance by the provincial government.

She cited the $608 million the province has allocated to combat overdoses and help drug users since the NDP came to power almost three years ago as evidence of its political will.

“Of course there’s a lot more to do but we have not taken our foot off the pedal for one minute,” Darcy said.

Ward would like the province follow a recommendation from a 2019 report authored by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who called for the decriminalization of the possession of illegal drugs in the province.

At the time, the government said it would not follow the recommendation as decriminalization fell under federal jurisdiction.

Nick Wells , The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

overdose

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Beefs & Bouquets, May 27

To submit a beef or a bouquet to the Nanaimo News Bulletin, e-mail editor@nanaimobulletin.com

100-pound gargoyle stolen from backyard in Nanaimo’s south end

RCMP asking for any information about the statue’s whereabouts

Helicopter company helps Nanaimo couple get married, socially distanced on a mountaintop

West Coast Helicopters lifts wedding onto Mount Cokely after COVID-19 cancelled previous plans

Nanaimo senior who was excessively speeding says her vehicle shouldn’t have been impounded

RCMP say they can’t exercise discretion when it comes to excessive speeding tickets

OPINION: Another world is possible as we emerge from pandemic

Nanaimo city councillor Tyler Brown says resiliency starts at the community level

B.C. legislature coming back June 22 as COVID-19 emergency hits record

Pandemic restrictions now longer than 2017 wildfire emergency

B.C.’s essential grocery, hardware store employees should get pandemic pay: retail group

Only B.C.’s social, health and corrections workers are eligible for top-ups

Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto vying to be NHL hubs, but there’s a catch

The NHL unveiled a return-to-play plan that would feature 24 teams

Facing changes together: Your community, your journalists

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world in ways that would have… Continue reading

As SD84 schools look to reopen, Kyuquot and Zeballos opt out

Schools in Tahsis and Gold River will open on June 1, with 30 per cent students expected to come in

B.C. sees 9 new COVID-19 cases, one death as officials watch for new cases amid Phase Two

Number of confirmed active cases is at 244, with 37 people in hospital

Illicit-drug deaths up in B.C. and remain highest in Canada: chief coroner

More than 4,700 people have died of overdoses since B.C. declared a public health emergency in early 2016

West Coast Trail to remain closed for now

Federal government won’t open world-famous trek until its First Nations are ready for visitors

Nanaimo man scores viral hit with stop-motion tribute to ‘Schitt’s Creek’

Todd Cameron used vintage Fisher Price toys to create one-minute music video

Most Read