A dramatic spike in drug overdose deaths – and the increasing prevalence of fentanyl – has prompted B.C.’s top doctor to declare a public health emergency.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall said there were 200 illicit drug overdose deaths recorded in the first three months of 2016 alone, and officials are concerned the death toll could reach as high as 800 by year’s end.

That’s up from 474 deadly drug overdoses in 2015 and 365 the year before.

To address the startling surge, Kendall announced Thursday that he’s sought emergency powers under the Public Health Act, a first-of-its-kind response to drug overdoses in Canada.

“We’re doing it now because of the consistently increasing number of deaths and the numbers of deaths that are associated with fentanyl, despite a number of programs that we have put in place over the last few years,” Kendall said.

“This is an emergency.”

The measure will let officials gather more information on overdoses from emergency room staff, paramedics and other first responders, who will be asked to relay data as quickly as possible.

That data includes which drugs were taken, how they were used and where they were used. And for the first time ever, health workers will be forwarding information on non-fatal overdoses as well.

Kendall said while the powers are active, overdoses will be treated the same way health officials already treat communicable diseases.

“We’ve been collecting data on reportable communicable diseases for 40-plus years,” Kendall said.

“We get the information, it’s confidential, it’s used for programming purposes, maybe used for outreach, and we can also use it at a provincial level to get a picture of what’s going on.”

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control will be responsible for analyzing the data at the provincial level. At the local level, Kendall said the more robust information will help health authorities issue targeted warnings about bad batches of drugs and choose where to distribute kits containing naloxone, a medication that can reverse the effects of opioid overdoses.

According to the B.C. Ministry of Health, take-home naloxone kits, which have been available since 2012, have already been responsible for stopping 288 overdoses.

“This is a drug that blocks the receptors for opioids so that respiratory effects are reversed,” Health Minister Terry Lake said Thursday. “It literally saves people’s lives, so early administration of naloxone is key.”

Fentanyl is among the drugs whose effects can potentially be stopped by naloxone, according to the province. Health officials warn the highly toxic narcotic, said to be roughly 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, is becoming increasingly common, and was detected in roughly 31 per cent of overdose deaths last year. That’s compared to 25 per cent in 2014 and 15 per cent in 2013.

Kendall said before enacting emergency powers, he consulted with B.C.’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, and promised the data gathered will not be shared with police.

“We would be concerned that such a collaboration might in fact discourage people from seeking help,” he said.

The Ministry of Health said all the information that’s collected will be considered confidential medical records.