VANCOUVER -- Officials are renewing calls for a safe drug supply after releasing a stark analysis of 2019: nearly three people died of drug overdoses each day.

It's an average announced Monday with the latest data from the BC Coroners Service. The province says there were 981 suspected illicit drug overdose deaths last year, or about 2.7 a day.

The total death toll was down 36 per cent from that of 2018, the coroner said, but it's comparable to how many died in 2016 – the year the province declared a health emergency. And the number of non-fatal overdoses plateaued in 2019, the provincial data showed.

"More than 5,000 lives have been lost in B.C. since 2016 as a result of illicit drug toxicity. These deaths have deeply hurt families and communities across our province and represent an immense loss of potential in all walks of life," B.C.'s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said in a statement.

"The number of illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2019 remains higher than motor vehicle incidents, suicides and homicides combined, and B.C. continues to bear the heaviest toll of the impacts of the unpredictable, profit-driven, illicit drug market."

Lapointe noted that more people died in the days immediately following the issuance of income assistance payments than any other days of the year. And the chief coroner said the data underscores ongoing calls for a regulated, safer supply in B.C.

Calling it a "sharp reminder of lives cut too short," the province's top doctor agreed with the chief coroner's suggestion that more needs to be done.

Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said the decrease in deaths was encouraging, but added, "We're dealing with addiction. And addiction is an illness, a health condition. We are in no way out of this crisis yet."

Henry said the rate of overdose is still high across B.C., and there's been an increase in the number of younger people seeing long-lasting health effects after an overdose. Among those impacts are traumatic brain injuries, which can last a lifetime.

"We know that more and more people are surviving overdose and living with the long-term health impacts," she said.

More people are seeking treatment and recovery options, and the province is working toward meeting what she called "long-neglected" needs.

"The measures we are taking to ensure access to services are there for people who use drugs when they are ready and able to start their path to recovery," Henry said.

"In the meantime, we need to change our approach so that people who use drugs are able to seek help without the fear of being charged criminally and with access to a pharmaceutical alternative, instead of what is clearly a toxic street-drug supply."

Henry said the province is working with health authorities to expand access to medication-assisted treatment for those living with an opioid-use disorder, and to increase the number of treatment beds.

"We cannot afford to stop caring."

She said the government is also working with the First Nations Health Authority to build two new Indigenous treatment centres and rebuild six others.

And over the next year, she said, the province will continue to look to people with lived experience for a better assortment of care options.

One of those options may be the installation of automatic dispensing machines stocked with opioids

Earlier this year, Vancouver saw the launch of Canada's first such machine, which its creator describes as "a safe supply of opioids with dignity, autonomy and control."

Around the same time, a local drug policy expert said the country should move toward decriminalization for possession for personal use.

"(Criminalization) does nothing but harm people," said Donald MacPherson, the executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, in an interview in January

He also advocates for a safer supply, as well as more treatment services and housing options.

Key numbers from 2019 

Here are some highlights from the report released by the BC Coroners Service Monday:

  • 330: The number of days, out of 365, in which there was at least one illicit drug toxicity death
  • 23: The number of deaths per 100,000 individuals in the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority
  • 22.5: The number of deaths per 100,000 individuals in the Northern Health Authority
  • Four in 5: The rate of fatal overdoses in which fentanyl was detected
  • Three-quarters: The proportion of B.C.'s fatal overdoses that involve middle-aged men
  • 71 per cent: The rate of overdoses involving people aged 30 to 59
  • 87 per cent: How many of the death occurred indoors
  • 232,312: The number of naloxone kits shipped in B.C. last year, up from 195,969 in 2018

Read the latest report on the provincial government website