Another record-high monthly overdose death tally in B.C.

Calls for decriminalization grow as there were 175 deaths registered in June, bringing the yearly total of illicit drug deaths to 728. Through the first six months of 2020, Kamloops has recorded 25 such deaths, just one fewer than all of 2019.

Another record-high monthly overdose death tally in B.C.

There were 175 deaths registered in June, bringing the yearly total of illicit drug deaths to 728. Through the first six months of 2020, Kamloops has recorded 25 such deaths, just one fewer than all of 2019.

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The overdose death epidemic in B.C. continues to worsen with yet another record high monthly number of deaths.

The BC Coroners Service has released data that show there were 175 drug overdose deaths in the province in June, the most ever recorded in a single month and four more than the previous high of 171 deaths registered in May.

B.C. has now recorded four consecutive months with over 100 illicit drug toxicity deaths.

Through the first half of 2020, there have been 728 illicit drug deaths in B.C. and the number of deaths in each health authority is at or near the highest monthly totals ever recorded.

In June of 2019, there were 76 such deaths recorded.

B.C. is on pace to record more than 1,400 overdose deaths this year, which would be a significant spike following a downward trend in 2019, when there were 981 such deaths. There were 1,546 deaths in 2018, 1,495 deaths in 2017 and 991 deaths in 2016, when a public health emergency was declared.

In Kamloops, there have been 25 overdose deaths through the first six months of the year. In all of last year, Kamloops recorded 26 such deaths.

If the monthly rates continue, the city will be on pace to exceed the 46 deaths it recorded in 2018, the highest annual amount ever registered.

"We know the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people who use drugs, as it has all British Columbians,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner at the BC Coroners Service. “Access to key harm-reduction services has been a challenge and our social networks are smaller. For those using substances — opioids or otherwise — please make sure you use only in the presence of someone who will call for immediate help if you need it, use at an overdose-prevention or supervised-consumption site and have your drugs checked before using, if you can. The drug supply in our province is highly toxic and the risk of using alone is too high. Buddying up could save your life.”

Lapointe said the province is monitoring for the presence of hydromorphone in post-mortem toxicity results and have seen no evidence of a link between increased prescriptions and the increase in deaths.

While cocaine and methamphetamine/amphetamine have been detected in many drug deaths investigated, fentanyl remains the most significant factor in the increasing number of overdose deaths.

Post-mortem toxicology testing data published in the most recent report suggests an increase in the number of cases with extreme fentanyl concentrations (exceeding 50 micrograms per litre) in April, May and June compared with previous months.

Dr. Perry Kendall, co-interim executive director at the BC Centre on Substance Use, is adding to the call for decriminalization of drugs.

"The number of lives lost over more than four years of a public health emergency is heartbreaking. That each one of these deaths was entirely preventable makes this emergency all the more tragic," Kendall said, noting decriminalization needs to be augmented with pharmaceutical alternatives to the toxic drug supply.

"Creating a permanent, accessible safe supply and decriminalizing people who use drugs are both urgently needed to stop overdoses and should have happened long ago," said Guy Felicella, peer clinical advisor with the Overdose Emergency Response Centre and BC Centre on Substance Use. "I'm tired of waiting for what's necessary when the calls for these changes have been made over and over again. And I'm tired of seeing people die while waiting for access to a safer supply or access to detox or to get into recovery. The waiting is killing people."

Dr. Shannon McDonald, acting chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority, noted the impact on First Nations people in B.C. from the crisis is higher than the rest of the province's population. From January through June, there were 89 deaths of Indigenous people, compared to 46 deaths during the same period last year.

"Indigenous people continue to be disproportionately impacted by this worsening crisis,” McDonald said. “Real change is needed and we could begin with more of what works, namely harm reduction and a safe drug supply.”

From the report:

• The number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in June 2020 equates to about 5.8 deaths per day. The number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2020 equates to four deaths per day for the year.

• In 2020, 68 per cent of those dying were ages 19 to 49. In 2019 and 2018, 67 per cent were in this age range. Males accounted for 80 per cent of deaths in 2020 to date, slightly higher than in 2019 (76 per cent) and consistent with 2018 (80 per cent).

• Communities experiencing the highest number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2020 are Vancouver (178) Surrey (92), Victoria (67), Kelowna (26) and Kamloops (25).

• In 2020, 85 per cent of illicit drug toxicity deaths occurred inside (57 per cent in private residences and 28 per cent in other residences, including social and supportive housing, SROs, shelters and hotels and other indoor locations), while 14 per cent occurred outside in vehicles, sidewalks, streets, parks, etc.

• Preliminary data suggests the proportion of illicit drug toxicity deaths for which illicit fentanyl was detected (alone or in combination with other drugs) was approximately 72 per cent in 2020 and 85 per cent in 2019. 2020 data will change as further toxicology results are received.

• Carfentanil was detected in 133 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2019 and 17 deaths in 2020. There were 11 deaths with carfentanil detected in June 2020. This is subject to change as further toxicology results are received.

• A review of completed cases from 2016 to 2019 indicates the top four detected drugs relevant to illicit drug toxicity deaths were fentanyl (83 per cent), cocaine (50 per cent), methamphetamine/amphetamine (34 per cent) and heroin (15 per cent).

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