'Many of them died alone': Most overdoses at home in B.C.'s deadliest month
VANCOUVER -- The province’s top doctor is pleading for compassion as she warns British Columbians they could have loved ones using drugs in secret.
B.C. once again saw a record number of overdose deaths, due in part to the pandemic.
The latest statistics from the BC Coroners Service found 175 people died from drug overdoses in B.C. in June, while the first six months of the year saw 176 deaths due to COVID-19.
"About 80 per cent of people who died are men between the ages of 19 and two-thirds of people died in their own home," said Dr. Bonnie Henry. "We know from the conversations we've had with family, with friends, that most of their family and friends did not know that they were using drugs and many of them died alone."
Analysis by the coroners service concludes the COVID-19 pandemic is making the overdose crisis, which has claimed thousands of lives in the province in the past five years, even deadlier.
"The one thing we know from our data is the people who are dying, many of them are dying alone and so the complications with the dual health emergency, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the illicit drug crisis -- we know that people have been isolated and we know there's been unintended consequences, too, for people who use drugs during COVID," said spokesperson Andy Watson. “We continue to advocate for people to buddy up, don’t use without somebody there to help you if you come across a toxic dose."
When asked about the billions of dollars being spent on the pandemic in the past few months, compared to millions on the fentanyl crisis declared a public health emergency years ago despite many more deaths, Premier John Horgan insisted it’s not constructive to compare the two crises.
"These are two separate things. We have an insidious virus that affects anyone at any time and we have an opioid crisis that involves people using drugs. Those are choices initially, and then they become dependencies," he said. "My first meeting with Bonnie (Henry) when she was first hired was about safe drugs supply, so we've been working on bringing these numbers down. We've seen a spike in the past couple of months -- it's very disturbing, particularly for those families affected. I want British Columbians to know we're not abandoning them. We're going to redouble our efforts to bring more resources, to bring more actions across the country working with the federal government so we can wrestle this to the ground just the way we have all collectively wrestled COVID-19 to the ground."
Horgan also reiterated his support for a call by the nation’s police chiefs to decriminalize the personal possession of drugs, and treat illicit substances as a public health concern rather than a criminal matter. He also emphasized his support for a safe, clean drug supply – which he called particularly important since closed borders are widely blamed for the increased presence of fentanyl in street drugs, making them even deadlier.
The Liberal critic for mental health and addictions called the NDP approach a failure for not providing enough resources for those looking for help.
“There's waiting lists they can't get in, so there’s a very disjointed system in British Columbia that does not help people get into recovery -- even when they're ready to get into recovery,” said Jane Thornthwaite. "You'd think after three years they could've come up with a comprehensive mental health and addictions strategy that would help prevent these tragic deaths."
The coroners service, meanwhile, is emphasizing the need to destigmatize drug use so that no one is using alone behind closed doors, as well as medical-grade drugs.
"We need to create more access to safe supply and remove the barriers for people that are looking for help," insisted Watson.
The soft hands, long-term approach to battling drug dependency was the focus of Henry’s comments on the new overdose numbers, comments she made while visibly moved by the death toll.
"It's not a drug problem, it's a pain problem…whether it's physical pain, whether it's emotional pain, psycho-social pain, the pain of family drama and trauma you’ve gone through, those are things that lead people to use drugs. Nobody grows up thinking I want to be addicted to substances, I want to have a substance use disorder, I want to have this controlling my life," said Henry.
"This ongoing crisis reminds us we need to put as much time and effort and kindness and compassion into caring for people who use drugs as we have been successful in responding to the COVID19 crises."