Lisa Lapointe
(Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe, BC Gov Flickr)

Nearly 7,000 people have died since the province declared a public health emergency around opioid-related deaths in B.C.

Then-provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall first declared the emergency on April 14th, 2016, citing a significant spike in overdose deaths.

In the latest update from the BC Coroners Service on Thursday, 1,716 people were reported to have died from illicit drug toxicity in 2020.

It’s the highest number of opioid-related deaths in a single year since 1994.

From 2016 to 2020, a total of 6,733 people were reported to have died from illicit drug toxicity.

The province says these figures show that the toxic drug supply in B.C. has claimed more lives than motor-vehicle crashes, homicides, suicides and prescription-drug related deaths combined.

However, Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said there is ongoing stigma against people dying from overdoses in British Columbia.

“These are sons, brothers, fathers, daughters, sisters, friends and colleagues,” she said at a press conference on Thursday.

“Thousands of years of life and potential are gone. We must turn this terrible trajectory around.”

The latest statistics continue an ongoing trend that the majority of those who died are men between the ages of 19 to 59, and they are mostly overdosing in private residences.

Fentanyl is particularly lethal for the community and was found in 86.8 per cent of all recorded cases of illicit drug toxicity deaths from 2017 to 2020.

Lapointe says there are four key areas that should be concentrated on: access to harm reduction services such as safe consumption sites, access to a safe supply of substances, creating an evidence-based system of treatment and recovery, and ending criminalization.

Some critics are saying the government has moved too slowly on these issues, and the COVID-19 response is proof that a large-scale approach is possible.

“Where is the plan?” Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop the Harm, said on Thursday. “I don’t understand why government cannot put out the big safety net we need.”

The province insists that action is being taken and suggested that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, improvements were evident in fewer deaths in 2019.

“Before the pandemic, we were making progress,” said Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson.

“In 2019, for the first time since 2012, we brought overdose deaths down. And according to the BC Centre for Disease Control, increases in naloxone distribution, added supervised consumption and more treatment options have averted more than 6,000 deaths.”

Members of the opposition say that simply isn’t good enough.

BC Liberal Critic for Mental Health and Addictions Trevor Halford says that the government should be doing more to provide mental health supports for youths.

“COVID-19 has left many people without the supports they need, further exposing gaps in B.C.’s mental health system,” Halford stated.

Green Leader Sonia Furstenau suggested the health system should be integrating mental health into primary care.

“Depression, anxiety, and people contemplating suicide are at an all time high in Canada,” said Furstenau.

“It is past time we integrated mental health care into the primary healthcare system.”

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