B.C. health officials said 1,716 deaths were due to illicit drug overdoses in 2020.
That upward trend continued into 2021, with 165 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in January — the largest number of alleged overdoses recorded in any January.
The 165 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths represent a 104 per cent increase over the number of deaths occurring in January 2020 (81) and a 7 per cent increase in deaths occurring in December 2020 (154).
According to November 2020 data, approximately 83 per cent of illicit drug toxicity deaths in B.C. in 2020 had fentanyl detected, or 1,288 of 1,548 deaths, based on preliminary data and pending further results.
B.C.’s Chief Coroner, Lisa Lapointe, called 2020 “the most tragic year” for overdoses.
“Fentanyl is the toxic substance that is causing all of these deaths,” said Lapointe, who cites there is no quality control in the production of fentanyl.
“We’re particularly concerned about the toxicity of the drugs detected in many of the deaths recorded in January,” said Lapointe, as the findings indicate an already unstable drug supply in B.C. is worsening.
The pandemic disrupted the production of fentanyl, and the chemicals used are harder to find with pandemic border closures, which means that criminals are swapping in other lethal substances.
Lapointe said this underscores the urgent need for supervised consumption options, prescribing for safe supply, and accessible treatment and recovery services — with the latter accessed less throughout the pandemic.
Among the drug types involved in completed illicit drug toxicity death investigations, illicit fentanyl had increased from 5 per cent in 2012 to 82 per cent in 2020.
“It is astounding to me there isn’t more outrage amongst everybody in this country that so many of us are dying,” Lapointe said, who is worried some people are turning a blind eye to the tragedy unfolding.
In 2021, 85 per cent of illicit drug toxicity deaths occurred indoors, with 56 per cent in private residences and 30 per cent in other dwellings, including social and supportive housing, shelters, hotels and other indoor locations.
Thirteen per cent occurred outside in vehicles, sidewalks, streets, parks, etc.
No deaths were reported at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites.
“There is a frustration that this many people can die in our province. Well over 6,000 people in the last five years,” said Lapointe.
“In the fifth year of this public health emergency, there is virtually no community in the province that this devastating loss of life hasn’t touched.
“These figures are heartbreaking, both in scale and for the number of families who are grieving the loss of a loved one.”
The number of fatal overdoses in January 2021 equates to 5.3 deaths per day, with 70 per cent of the deaths from the age 30 to 59 demographic.
Males accounted for 83 per cent of deaths in 2021.
The townships experiencing the highest number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2021 are Vancouver, Surrey, and Victoria.
Overall, the rate in BC is 38 deaths per 100,000 individuals in 2021.
Dhaliwal is the Western Standard’s Edmonton reporter.