'Critical risk to public safety': Latest overdose death count shows worst February on record for B.C.
VANCOUVER -- For the 11th month in a row, more than 100 people have died from an illicit drug overdose in B.C.
The province's coroner released the data Wednesday, revealing 155 people died in February from suspected drug toxicity. That averages to 5.5 lives lost each day and marks the second month in a row with an average number of daily deaths above five, the coroner says.
The latest figures also marked the most overdose deaths ever recorded in the month of February, and a 107 per cent increase over the same month last year.
"The number of deaths due to toxic illicit drugs in February highlights the ongoing critical risk to public health and safety from the illicit drug market," said Lisa Lapointe, B.C.'s chief coroner, in a news release.
"I extend my sincere sympathy to everyone who has lost a beloved family member or friend to substance use. The continued tragic and unprecedented rate of death in B.C. highlights the urgent need for a multi-faceted, evidence-based and accessible system of care for those experiencing problematic substance use."
The latest data also showed an age-based trend officials have noted in recent years. While fatal overdoses still tend to impact a younger population, 40 per cent of the deaths that happened in 2021 so far were people aged 50 and older. And 15 per cent of the total deaths were people aged 60 and older.
Most deaths are occurring in Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria, the coroner's report says.
Of the 155 deaths recorded in February, carfentanil, a more lethal analogue of fentanyl, was found in 18 of the cases. That surpassed January's figure of 14, which had broken a record last set in April 2019.
"This data emphasizes the alarming increase in the toxicity of the illicit drug supply throughout B.C.," Lapointe said.
"Across the province, the risk of serious harm or death is very real for anyone using a substance purchased from the illicit market. Decisive action is urgently needed to ensure an accessible, regulated safe supply and to provide people with the supervised consumption, treatment and recovery services they need."
Lapointe is not the only one calling for better access to a regulated safe supply of pharmaceutical narcotics.
Drug users and policy advocates are also saying expanding that program has the potential to very quickly reduce the number of deaths from toxic drugs.
"It doesn't matter if you use every day or you use once a year, it's still the same death. And we can't let this continue,” said advocate Karen Ward.
The province estimates there are about 77,000 people in B.C. who have been diagnosed with opioid use disorder, but only 3,329 have access to hydromorphone – a safer alternative to toxic street drugs.
Sheila Malcolmson, the minister of mental health and addictions, says the government has plans to dramatically increase that number but it will take time to train more medical professionals to provide appropriate prescriptions.
“British Columbians can be proud of how we’re pushing the boundaries and moving this work forward ahead of the rest of the country,” Malcolmson said. “And we’re determined to do this as quickly and safely as we can.”
So far this year, 329 people have died of illicit drug overdoses the most recent overdose data says.