Overdoses ‘sadly normalized’ in British Columbia: addictions minister

Overdoses ‘sadly normalized’ in British Columbia: addictions minister

B.C. was starting to see a drop in overdose-related deaths by the end of 2019

A rising death toll from overdoses in B.C. during the COVID-19 pandemic has advocates, government officials and health-care workers concerned about a public health emergency that has been overshadowed by the response to the virus.

The BC Coroners Service says 113 people died in March of suspected illicit drug toxicity, the first time in a year that deaths from overdoses across B.C. exceeded 100.

The province declared opioid-related overdoses a public health emergency four years ago. More than 5,000 people have died from overdoses since then.

Judy Darcy, the minister of mental health and addictions, said overdose deaths have become routine to people in B.C.

“I think the reality is that over the last few years, sadly, I hate to say this, sadly, I think the overdose crisis in many peoples’ lives has come to be normalized,” she said.

B.C. was starting to see a drop in overdose-related deaths by the end of 2019, only to see a spike once the COVID-19 pandemic started.

“What you have is almost a COVID perfect storm for people at high risk,” Darcy said.

“We’re talking about two public health emergencies, we’re talking about a more toxic drug supply and we’re talking about people staying home because of COVID-19. The majority of people who die of overdoses die because they’re using alone.”

Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, said it’s difficult to sustain attention on the long-running health emergency in the face of a global pandemic.

“It’s hard to keep it top of mind and people are concerned — and rightly so — about COVID-19, which has had an impact on all of our lives, but it’s about a balance of risk,” she said in an interview.

Drug users living in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side face a bigger risk from overdoses than they do from COVID-19, Daly added.

Toronto also saw a spike in overdoses and related deaths in March and April. Toronto Public Health said the 19 overdose deaths in March were the highest they’ve been in a year.

The Northern Health authority has the highest rate of overdose deaths in B.C. Its medical officer blames a changing drug supply combined with physical distancing measures for part of the increase in deaths.

Another factor could be tied to government relief funds, said Dr. Rakel Kling.

“Some access to some of the government funding and a bit easier access to money from the COVID response could be contributing to different drug use as well,” Kling said in an interview.

Kling wouldn’t speculate on how government relief funds could specifically affect overdoses, besides allowing users to buy different drugs.

Part of the problem facing the heath authority in combating overdoses is its size, she said.

Northern Health is responsible for 300,000 residents ranging across a vast area from central B.C. to the border with the Northwest Territories and Yukon.

“While all of our communities have harm-reduction supplies, it could be quite a distance to access these supplies,” she said, adding that the problem is particularly acute in smaller communities.

To prevent overdoses during the COVID-19 pandemic amid fears the illegal drug supply would become more toxic, B.C. issued guidelines for a safe supply of drugs for users in April.

It allows doctors to prescribe alternative medications for those using illicit drugs, ranging from hydromorphone for opioid users to Dexedrine for those who use stimulants.

Karen Ward, a drug rights advocate as well as a drug policy and poverty reduction consultant with the City of Vancouver, believes the COVID-19 pandemic highlights how lives can be saved when resources and political will are directed at an issue.

“It’s a lack of political will and it’s a choice. This took time to turn into a disaster,” she said of the overdose death toll.

“Thousands of people have died and that didn’t have to happen.”

Darcy called the recent deaths “heartbreaking,” adding that overdoses are not being treated with less importance by the provincial government.

She cited the $608 million the province has allocated to combat overdoses and help drug users since the NDP came to power almost three years ago as evidence of its political will.

“Of course there’s a lot more to do but we have not taken our foot off the pedal for one minute,” Darcy said.

Ward would like the province follow a recommendation from a 2019 report authored by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who called for the decriminalization of the possession of illegal drugs in the province.

At the time, the government said it would not follow the recommendation as decriminalization fell under federal jurisdiction.

Nick Wells , The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

overdose

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Tofino’s library is currently located in the basement of the Tofino Legion building but talks are underway to build a brand new facility. (Andrew Bailey photo)
The District of Tofino has put new restrictions in place around alcohol at public events. (Westerly file photo)
Tofino puts new restrictions on alcohol at public events

Town’s council adopts Municipal Alcohol Policy.

Stand up paddleboarder Christie Jamieson is humbled to her knees as a pod of transient orcas put on a dramatic show on Jan. 19 in the Ucluelet Harbour. (Nora O’Malley photo)
UPDATED: Vancouver Island paddle boarder’s orca encounter brings joy and outrage

Woman’s ‘best day’ criticized for disturbing the whales

Gord John stands during question period in Ottawa in Sept. 2020. (PHOTO COURTESY CHRISTIAN DIOTTE, HOUSE OF COMMONS PHOTO SERVICES)
2020: A Year in Review with Courtenay-Alberni MP Gord Johns

NDP MP wants to ‘build back better’ in 2021

Tofino expects to elect a new mayor and two new councillors on March 6. (Westerly file photo)
Nomination period begins for Tofino byelection

Tofino is set to replace former mayor Josie Osborne, who is now the Mid Island-Pacific Rim MLA.

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, vice-president of logistics and operations at the Public Health Agency of Canada, speaks at a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
B.C. records 500 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, 14 deaths

Outbreak at Surrey Pretrial jail, two more in health care

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette takes the royal salute from the Guard of Honour as she makes her way deliver the the throne speech, Wednesday, September 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Gov. Gen. Julie Payette resigns after searing report into workplace culture: reports

Payette, who is the Queen’s representative in Canada, has been the governor general since 2017

Grounded WestJet Boeing 737 Max aircraft are shown at the airline’s facilities in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, May 7, 2019. WestJet will operate the first commercial Boeing 737 Max flight in Canada today since the aircraft was grounded in 2019 following two deadly crashes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Passengers unfazed as WestJet returns Boeing 737 Max to service on Vancouver flight

After a lengthy review process, Transport Canada cleared the plane to return to Canadian airspace

The top part of the fossil burrow, seen from the side, with feathery lines from the disturbance of the soil – thought to be caused by the worm pulling prey into the burrow. (Paleoenvironntal Sediment Laboratory/National Taiwan University)
PHOTOS: SFU researchers find evidence of ‘giant’ predatory worms on ocean floor

Fossils found the prove the existence of an ancient Taiwanese worm as long as two metres

RCMP officers provide policing for 63 B.C. municipalities under a provincial formula based on population. (Black Press file photo)
B.C. communities warned of upcoming RCMP unionization costs

Starting salaries for city police officers are 30% higher

(Pxhere)
B.C. nurse suspended after using Tensor bandage to trap long-term care patient in room

Susan Malloch voluntarily agreed to a three-day suspension of her certificate of registration

Abbotsford’s Skully White (left), who donated his kidney in December, has started a campaign to find other recipients and donors. The first candidate is retired police officer Gavin Quon. White owns and operates a hotdog stand, Lullys Food Experience, out of the Abbotsford Canadian Tire parking lot. (Facebook photo)
After donating his kidney, Abbotsford hotdog king starts donor campaign

Skully White donated his kidney to customer Tim Hiscock in December

Toronto-based director Michelle Latimer was recently scrutinized after years of claiming she was of Algonquin and Metis descent. (CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)
Haida activist calls for hefty fines, jail time against those who claim to be Indigenous

Filmmaker Tamara Bell proposing the Indigenous Identity Act – to dissuade ‘Indigenous identity theft’

Most Read