Overdose deaths increased on central Vancouver Island in 2020, and officials say the crisis has been exacerbated by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
In 2020, drug toxicity deaths increased by more than 50 percent on the Central Island, as numbers rose from 36 deaths in 2019 to 58 deaths in 2020.
For the purposes of the report, the Central Island is classified as Tofino to Parksville, Duncan to Courtenay, excluding numbers from Nanaimo. Information from the BC Coroners Service shows that there were 11 overdose fatalities in the Alberni-Clayoquot region alone in 2020.
“That’s a huge increase in one year in our community,” said Port Alberni’s Community Action Team coordinator Mary Clare Massicotte
But the opioid crisis is not just a Central Island concern. According to the BC Coroners Service, 2020 was the deadliest year of the crisis in the province’s history, with roughly five fatal overdoses a day across B.C.
Alberni CAT co-chair Ron Merk attributed most of this increase to COVID-19 and the provincial restrictions associated with it.
“We were in the right trend in 2019,” he told council. “Then, unfortunately for everybody, COVID-19 came along. What we have seen is the numbers have gone off the board even worse than when [the CAT] started in 2017. That’s the biggest cause-and-effect that we see. The worse COVID got, the worse the overdose crisis got.”
As community services were put on hold, he added, people ended up going to places where they used alone. Increased stress also fed the desire to use.
Merk explained that the majority of the overdose deaths in 2020 happened to men between the ages of 25 and 55 who lived in single-family dwelling units.
Merk agreed that stigma is “the single biggest driving force” of the overdose crisis.
“Not only for marginalized people, but for families, people who are using substances, it is so destructive,” he told council. “Everything tells us in the last 10-15 years, we need to get to a safe drug supply, we need to get to decriminalization of drugs and we have to move to a model…which puts forward the fact that drug use is basically an illness that needs to be supported by fixing the social problems that created it in the first place.”
In 2020, the CAT also completed a “Humans First” survey with funding from the First Nations Health Authority. With this survey, 30 Indigenous individuals with lived experience were asked a number of open-ended questions, to help give insight and suggestions for gaps in services and possible solutions.
Some of the key findings of the report note that access to affordable housing, stigma and access to supports and services are three of the biggest issues driving the opioid crisis in First Nations communities.
Merk noted that Indigenous populations are disproportionally represented when it comes to overdose deaths.
“That’s a major concern for us,” he said. “The trauma they’ve experienced has driven some of those numbers.”
Over the past few months CAT has also been promoting the use of the new “Lifeguard” app, which is designed to help people using illicit drugs get help if they overdose.