The First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) released numbers on Monday showing a dramatic increase in the number of overdose deaths among the Indigenous population in the months from January to May 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.
There have been 89 deaths during that period this year, compared to 46 deaths in 2019, an increase of 93 per cent.
The FNHA also revealed that the opioid problem in B.C. has been disproportionately affecting First Nations people, with 16 per cent of all overdose deaths between January and May in that demographic. During the same five-month period if 2019, that percentage was 9.9.
First Nations represent 3.3 per cent of the province’s population, meaning the Indigenous community has experienced overdose deaths 5.6 times more often than other B.C. residents.
When looking at reasons for the increase in overdose deaths, there were three primary reasons cited by Dr. Shannon McDonald, acting chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority: an increased toxicity of illicit drugs, the COVID-19 pandemic forcing people into isolation and precautions enacted to slow the spread of COVID-19 making it harder to support vulnerable people with physical-distancing rules in place.
Other issues likely behind the increase in overdose deaths include insufficient access to culturally safe mental-health and addiction treatment, systemic racism acting as a barrier to accessing health care and intergenerational trauma.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry also voiced her concern.
“The increase in overdoses in First Nations people in B.C. id deeply disturbing,” she said. “First Nations people are routinely differentially impacted by these deaths.”
According to Lisa Lapointe, the province’s chief coroner, there have been about 6,000 overdose deaths in B.C. since January 2015, primarily driven by fentanyl. Though overdose fatality numbers dropped in 2019, they are on the rise again in 2020, including 170 deaths in May, the most ever recorded in the province in one month.
The FNHA has been working to reduce overdose deaths in a number of ways, including partnering with organizations in eight cities to increase outreach in the community and in primary care, delivering more than 6,000 Naloxone kits through First Nations sites and Aboriginal friendship centres and developing culturally appropriate mental-health and addiction services, including land-based healing, at 98 new sites.
The FNHA, provincial and federal governments are also spending up to $60 million to build new and renovate existing First Nations treatment centres in B.C.