The number of overdose deaths in B.C. reached 1,386 between January and October of this year, according to new statistics released Wednesday by the BC Coroners Service.
Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria continue to be hardest hit by the overdose crisis, with the three cities alone accounting for 611 of the deaths recorded province-wide over the 10-month time period.
The statistics show the number of deaths continue to surpass the 100-mark this year, which first occurred in March with 114 recorded province-wide and climbing to a high of 183 in June, before decreasing to 162 in October.
Up until March, B.C. had seen 11 consecutive months of overdose deaths below 100, with a low of 60 in September 2019. In fact, only one month for all of last year — March — saw more than 100 deaths, with 116 recorded.
The new statistics equate to more than five people per day dying of an overdose in the province, with extreme concentrations of fentanyl still present in the drug supply, according to the coroners’ service data.
Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, has said many times this year that she feared more drug users were using alone because of public health orders and measures related to the pandemic that may have been misinterpreted by hotel owners and housing providers.
Visitors to overdose prevention sites also declined from an average of 6,000 per day to as low as 2,000 early on in the pandemic, Daly told Vancouver city council in April. The decline began occurring in mid-March when province-wide orders related to physical distancing began.
Daly reiterated those concerns last week at a news conference with Mayor Kennedy Stewart. She also pointed out the pandemic has disrupted the supply of illegal drugs and led to more toxic drugs on the street since March.
“The pandemic has worsened the opioid overdose crisis,” she said. “Those dying of overdoses are younger on average than those dying of COVID-19. Ninety per cent of people are in the prime of their lives, between the ages of 19 to 59.”
The overdose death statistics were released the day after Stewart introduced a motion to city council that seeks support to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs within Vancouver’s boundaries.
More than 40 people were registered to speak to council, with each person expected to get five minutes at the microphone at Wednesday’s council meeting before debate and decision on the motion.
If council approves Stewart’s motion, the mayor would then write to federal cabinet ministers and request a change to the country’s drug laws to decriminalize drugs. Stewart outlined his motion Nov. 18 at a news conference and said his request was motivated by the need to reduce overdose deaths in the city.
“Personal possession and use of drugs is not a criminal justice issue, it’s a health issue,” Stewart said. “It’s time we fully embraced the health-focused approach to substance use. In fact, it’s long overdue.”
He pointed out more than 1,500 people died of an overdose in Vancouver since the provincial government declared the overdose crisis a public health emergency in April 2016. He also said an estimated 328 people died this year in the city, between Jan. 1 and Nov. 18; that statistic was based on preliminary data from the Vancouver Police Department, with Wednesday’s release from the coroners’ service putting the number at 329.
Police gather overdose data each time they are called to a sudden death in the city, and have provided statistics at various times over the last couple of years for presentations to city council.
As the coroners’ service does, police caution the data is based on suspected deaths and point out the number of deaths could increase or decrease once full toxicology tests are completed. But if that 328 or 329 number holds, it would put Vancouver on a trajectory to equal or surpass the 396 deaths recorded in 2018 — the worst year for overdose deaths in the city over the last decade, and perhaps in recent history.
The decade began with 42 overdose deaths recorded in Vancouver in 2010. That total began to slowly increase in 2011 (69 deaths), 2012 (65), 2013 (80), 2014 (102) and 2015 (138) before spiking in 2016 with 231 deaths.
That climbed to 375 in 2017, 396 in 2018 and 247 in 2019.
Part of the explanation for the increase goes back to Thanksgiving Day in 2014 when the Insite supervised injection site on East Hastings recorded an unusually high number of overdoses.
Police rushed a sample of the drug being used in the area to a Health Canada lab and determined the presence of fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opioid that has been connected to more than 80 per cent of the deaths in the province.
While the prevalence of fentanyl and carfentanil led to more deaths, it also led to a significant increase in people overdosing across the city, with firefighters responding to 4,709 calls in 2016 — more than double the 2,080 recorded for all of 2014.
That call load has not abated to 2014 levels in the years since.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, meanwhile, remains uninterested in decriminalization, with Trudeau saying as recently as September that he would not back decriminalization as a public health response to the overdose crisis.
In July, when the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police called for decriminalization, Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Attorney-General David Lametti did not respond directly to the chiefs’ request in their joint response to Glacier Media.
“Working with other orders of government, substance use experts, service providers, first responders, law enforcement and people with lived and living experience, our government remains committed to advancing evidence-based responses to help reverse the trend of opioid overdose deaths and other substance-related harms in Canada,” their statement said.
More than 16,000 people have died of a drug overdose in the country between January 2016 and March 2020, according to the Government of Canada’s website. For that same period, more than 20,000 “opioid-related poisoning hospitalizations” occurred in the country (excluding Quebec), the website said.