More people died of illicit drug overdoses in May than in any other month in B.C.'s history
VANCOUVER -- Last month was especially deadly for drug users in British Columbia.
Stark figures released by the province Thursday showed B.C. reported its highest-ever monthly total of fatal overdoses from illicit drugs.
According to the report from the coroners service, 170 people died in May 2020. That's an average of nearly six people a day.
When compared to the previous month, when 118 people died, it's an increase of 44 per cent.
Looking at the number of deaths in May of last year, 88, the death toll went up by 93 per cent.
The report noted there have been three months in a row where the province's death toll has been greater than 100.
Speaking at a news conference on COVID-19 cases Thursday, an emotional Dr. Bonnie Henry addressed the new numbers.
"I cannot express how difficult this news has been to hear," the provincial health officer said.
"These are our brothers and sisters, our coworkers, our sons, our daughters, our friends, our community."
Henry said the two crises – COVID-19 and overdoses – have stretched B.C.'s resources "to the limit."
Her emotions were echoed by B.C.'s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, in a statement announcing the latest numbers.
"It is both sad and deeply frustrating to see the number of illicit drug deaths reach a new high in B.C. four years after the declaration of a public health emergency," Lapointe wrote.
She said 554 people have died of illicit drug overdoses in the first five months of the year.
The municipalities with the highest number of deaths so far this year are Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria, though the Northern Health Authority has the highest rate of death per capita.
"Despite many collective efforts directed at this crisis, the toxic drug supply continues to take the lives of our family members, friends and colleagues," Lapointe said.
The spike in April and May include more cases of what the report called "extreme fentanyl concentrations," when compared with previous months.
"Extreme" means the concentration was greater than 50 micrograms per litre.
Henry said the increase in toxicity has been noted around the province.
Pushing for access to a safe drug supply in B.C., Lapointe also called for an increase in supportive treatment and recovery to prevent future deaths.
The previous record for overdose deaths was in December 2016, the year the province declared a public health emergency over opioid-related deaths.
That month, there were 161 fatal overdoses.
Public health officials and doctors have raised concerns this year over the potential impacts of COVID-19.
The pandemic has effectively shut down Canada's borders, leading to a shortage in the supply reaching B.C.'s streets.
Local gangs have had to find ways of making their own products, and users may be getting doses inconsistent with what they're used to.
Speaking to CTV News in May, the medical lead at a Vancouver emergency room said the labs drugs are being cooked in have no quality control.
"They play Russian roulette with their mixtures," Dr. Dan Kalla said at the time.
He said the jump in overdoses seen earlier this spring was "definitely" related to the novel coronavirus, calling it "collateral damage" of the pandemic.
Additionally, users worried about spreading the virus are trying to maintain physical distancing. But using alone can be dangerous.
Henry said Thursday physical distancing also makes it easier for people to hide their drug use.
"We know that using alone right now is exceedingly deadly. The alarms of people missing have not been going off because we've been staying apart to do our best to try and manage the other crisis we're dealing with," the doctor said.
And some are hesitant to go to the emergency room, either for fear of contracting the virus or of overburdening the health-care system.