The province has set a grim new record for monthly overdose deaths as 201 people lost their lives in October.
The data was released by the BC Coroners Service Thursday (Dec. 9) and equals out to an average of 6.5 deaths each day of the month.
That brings the 2021 death toll to 1,782 up to the end of October, 344 deaths higher than in the first 10 months of 2020. Seventy-one per cent of the people who died this year were between the ages of 30 and 59, while 79 per cent were male.
The coroners service found that male deaths from illicit drugs have remained at a high rate, while female deaths have remained relatively stable. As of October 2021, 381 women have died due to illicit drug overdose, an increase from the 334 who died in all of 2020. A total of 1,400 men have died so far this year, compared to 1,431 in all of last year.
Fatal illicit drug overdoses remain by far the leading cause of death in the province, far above suicides, car crashes, homicide and prescription drug fatalities.
Fentanyl has been detected in about 84 per cent of overdose deaths in 2021. Since 2018, the deadly drug has been found in 86.8 per cent of drug deaths, with cocaine found in 47.9 per cent, methamphetamine found in 39.8 per cent, other opioids in 29.4 per cent, ethyl alcohol in 27.9 per cent, benzodiazepines in 7.6 per cent and other stimulants in three per cent.
Carfentanil, an opioid used as a tranquilizer for large animals and much more potent that fentanyl, was found in 152 illicit drug deaths so far this year, a sharp increase from 66 in 2020.
Fifty-five per cent of overdose deaths so far this year have happened at a private residence, with 25.5 per cent at other residences, 0.3 per cent in a correctional facility or police cell, 0.6 per cent at a medical facility, 0.4 per cent at an occupational sites. 0.5 per cent in a public washroom, 1.1 per cent in other areas of a public building, 14.9 per cent out doors and 1.7 per cent in an unknown space.
There have been no deaths at a supervised consumption facility, nor any linked to prescribed safe supply.
Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said that access to safe supply needs to be expanded, saying “the reality is that very few people in our province have any access at all” despite efforts by doctors and nurse prescribers.
“Access is not available in most parts of the province, and even where it is available, it’s vulnerable to being cut off suddenly and unexpectedly,” Lapointe said.
“As long as people are dependent on the for profit, unregulated, illicit drug market, their lives are in jeopardy.”
The chief coroner acknowledged that safe supply would not be a panacea for the overdose crisis.
“I don’t think we need to look for perfect right now. I think we need to look for better.”
Speaking at a press conference following Lapointe’s, Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson pointed out that B.C. was the first province in Canada to offer safe supply in March 2020.
Both Lapointe and Malcolmson acknowledged the challenges in getting doctors and nurse prescribers on board with safe supply.
“You cannot force a physician to write a prescription. You cannot force a physician to take this work on as part of their practice,” Lapointe said, but added that the province needs to push forward faster with plans to integrate safe supply into health authority operations.
“They are very good plans in normal times. But right now, and we are seeing six people die every day, that rollout is just simply not going to happen fast enough to prevent hundreds of more deaths.”
Malcolmson said that any one measure, including safe supply, was not a “silver bullet.”
The minister pointed to the the new addiction recovery beds being added – 47 new beds were added in December and 58 were converted from private to public – and the province’s work on decriminalizing small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.
That application is currently before the federal government. Malcolmson said that her conversations with newly appointed federal Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett had been “encouraging” and that Health Canada staff had not identified any barriers in processing and approving the application.
However, Lapointe said it was “very frustrating” to watch the speed at which the province dealt with its other public health emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than 8.6 million vaccinations have been distributed in our province in the last year and a half. That was a massive response, well coordinated, extremely effective,” she said. “I have no doubt that should the province put its mind to the rollout of safe supply on the same level, we can see a better response.
The overdose crisis has killed more than 8,500 since it was first declared a public health emergency in 2016, of whom 1,782 died just this year. The total death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic in B.C. since March 2020 is at 2,369.