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B.C., Kamloops again on pace for most-ever overdose deaths in a year

The latest information on the first half of 2021 was released on Aug. 31, which is International Overdose Awareness Day.
Lost Souls overdose
The labyrinth between Riverside and Pioneer parks featured a Lost Souls display on April 14, 2021, the fifth anniversary of the province declaring the opioid overdose crisis a public health emergency. Each pair of shoes represent a person who has died of an overdose.

There have been 1,011 suspected overdose deaths in B.C. through the first half of this year, a fatality rate that would make 2021 the deadliest ever year.

In Kamloops, there have been 32 such deaths through the first six months of 2021.

Last year, there were 1,728 overdose deaths recorded in B.C., with 60 of those deaths in Kamloops — both of which were the most ever.

The latest statistics, covering January through June, were released on Tuesday (Aug. 31), which is International Overdose Awareness Day. 

In June, 159 British Columbians died as a result of a suspected drug overdose, the ninth consecutive month in which at least 150 British Columbians died as a result of the toxic drug supply. The total number of lives lost between January and June is the highest recorded in the first six months of a calendar year.

Drug overdose is now the leading cause of death in B.C. for those ages 19 to 39.

"The deaths of more than 1,000 British Columbians in the first six months of 2021 is a tragic reminder that the toxic illicit drug supply remains a significant ongoing threat to public health and safety in communities throughout our province," BC Coroners Service chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said.

"The data released today highlights the immensity of this public health emergency and the need for a wide-scale response. This includes removing barriers to safe supply, ensuring timely access to evidence-based affordable treatment and providing those experiencing problematic substance use with compassionate and viable options to reduce risks and save lives."

In April 2016, the provincial government declared a public health emergency due to the spike in the number of overdose deaths.

As has been the case since such deaths began increasing in 2016, fentanyl continues to be the primary link to the deaths, as the toxic drug has been involved in 85 per cent in the first six months of 2021. By comparison, fentanyl was involved in just five per cent of overdose deaths in 2012.

The BC Coroners Service said cocaine, methamphetamine and etizolam are also present in significant numbers of deaths, noting prescribed safe supply is not playing a role in the ongoing drug-toxicity crisis.

"Today is International Overdose Awareness Day, a day in which we remember and mourn the family members, friends and neighbours we've lost to drug toxicity," Lapointe said.

"To the thousands of B.C. families grieving the loss of a beloved family member, I extend my heartfelt condolences and my hope that the stories you've shared will continue to influence positive change. Those who died mattered and their loss is felt deeply, and we must continue to urge those in positions of influence across our province and the country to move to urgently implement measures to prevent more unnecessary suffering and death."

Brian Twaites is an advanced-care paramedic and paramedic specialist who has responded to thousands of overdoses in a 35-year career.

"Paramedics across B.C. have been responding to an exponential increase in overdoses this year and there appears no end in sight to this health crisis,” Twaites said.

“This is someone's best friend. This is someone's dad. This is someone's kid. Every time this happens, the loss is devastating."

Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, said there are solutions to halt the deaths, if government would explore them.

"There are viable solutions to actually stop the deaths,” McBain said,

“We must push the governments to immediately implement a safe regulated supply of the drugs people need. We must stop the preventable deaths of our loved ones."

Of note

• 71 per cent of those who died as a result of suspected drug toxicity in 2021 were between the ages of 30 and 59 and 80 per cent were male.

• By community, Vancouver has recorded the most deaths, at 329, followed by Surrey (121), Victoria (73), Abbotsford (39), Burnaby (34) and Kamloops (32).

• By health authority in 2021, the highest number of illicit drug-toxicity deaths are in Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health (342 and 283 deaths), making up 62 per cent of all such deaths during this period.
• The highest rates of death this year are in Vancouver Coastal Health (46 deaths per 100,000 individuals) and Northern Health (45 per 100,000). Overall, the rate in B.C. is 39 deaths per 100,000 individuals.

• By health service delivery area in 2021, the highest rates are in Vancouver, Thompson-Cariboo, Northeast, North Vancouver Island, and Fraser East.

• Deaths due to drug toxicity remain the leading cause of unnatural death in BC.