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The month’s 170 overdose fatalities alone surpassed the province’s total COVID-19 deaths
May was the deadliest single month on record for overdose deaths in both BC and Vancouver Island, according to the latest report from the BC Coroners Service. Last month, overdoses took the lives of 21 people in Victoria, 38 on the Island, and 170 in the province. Below, details on the scale of the loss of life, and how COVID-19 might have played a part.
Only a few months ago, BC could boast of steadily decreasing its rate of overdose deaths. Overall overdoses remained just as high, but a more aggressive paramedic response, as well as the increasing prevalence of overdose-reversing Naloxone kits had meant that fewer were dying of it. The peak of “paramedic attended overdoses events” in 2019 was 1,539 in March, according to the BC Centre for Disease Control. The deadliest month in 2015, by contrast, saw paramedics attend to only 652 overdoses.
While overdose deaths had declined in 2019 compared to their peak in 2017 and 2018, this relative improvement has now been erased, and a curve that was steadily declining has rocketed back up. So far in 2020, Victoria has seen 49 overdose deaths; the same number it had by the end of October last year. The province’s 170 deaths are almost twice the 88 deaths recorded in May 2019, and a rise by almost half (43%) from the 118 deaths in April. May is also the third consecutive month with over 100 deaths, the first such streak since 2018. With 554 confirmed deaths, 2020 has already surpassed the totals for every year prior to 2016 and is on pace to be the third-deadliest year on record.
The deaths from overdoses are now far surpassing deaths from BC’s other, more prominent crisis. A total of 167 people have died from COVID-19 in the province—fewer than died of overdose in May alone. On the Island that disparity is even more pronounced: Island Health has tallied 5 COVID-19 deaths and now 98 overdoses for 2020. Officials, including provincial health officer Dr Bonnie Henry, had expected that COVID-19 would exacerbate the opioid crisis. Those predictions have come true to a horrifying degree: The number of people dead of overdose during the three pandemic months (401) is more than the total in any full year before 2015.
COVID-19 has not significantly changed the places in which people overdose, or the ages of the deceased. But the disruption of the cross-border supply chain has changed the makeup and accessibility of illegal drugs, and self-isolation has meant more people using alone. As usual, no fatal overdoses were recorded at safe consumption sites in May, but the pandemic has resulted in these sites becoming less accessible.
In response to the risk of increased overdoses, BC had greenlit a safe supply of illicit drug equivalents intended to prevent both potentially deadly withdrawal and the risky pursuit of new street drugs during a pandemic. But the province administered this change through an adjustment to its prescription guidelines for doctors. Drug users soon reported that they were unable to access these safe drug equivalents due to the reluctance of healthcare professionals to prescribe them, primarily for liability reasons.