The most recent report from the BC Coroners Service indicates that a public health emergency in terms of drug overdose deaths is far from over.
According to statistics, there was a 112 per cent increase in the number of illicit drug overdose deaths in B.C. from September 2019 to September 2020. During that period, the number jumped from 60 to 127, province-wide.
Statistics show that men, especially in the 30- to 59-year age bracket, account for most of the deaths.
Stigma, shame and gender conditioning are some of the reasons why men predominate the fatality statistics, says Shari Dunnet, project co-ordinator of the Comox Valley Community Action Team. Men who use substances tend to keep it hidden for fear of repercussions from employers or family members — which in turn leads to higher risk as they are more likely to use alone.
“This increases their risk tremendously as there is no intervention to reverse things should they overdose,” Dunnet said.
Gender conditioning, she notes, is also a barrier as men generally have a harder time than women when it comes to asking for help or supporting one another.
“Many men who use substances are fully employed and securely housed, and many work in the trades, hence the age range as well as gender,” Dunnet added.
The past decade has shown an alarming increase in the yearly number of drug toxicity deaths in B.C. In 2010, there were 211 deaths. By 2016 — the year the province declared a public health emergency — there were 991 deaths. The number peaked at 1,547 in 2018.
“We were starting to see some reduction in drug toxicity deaths (981) in 2019,” said Dr. Charmaine Enns, North Island medical health officer. “We weren’t back to baseline, but we were starting to see, finally, a downward curve. 2020, with our second public health emergency being COVID-19, reversed all of that, and more. If the drug toxicity death rate continues at the rate it has been, we are going to exceed our worst year to date, which was 2018.”
In North Vancouver Island, there were four illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2010. In 2017, the number had jumped to 37. In the first nine months of this year, there have been 23 drug toxicity deaths in the region.
“From my perspective, that’s 23 deaths that didn’t need to happen,” Enns said. “We’re four-and-a-half years into this public health emergency. COVID is our second public health emergency, which has been in place since March. So we have dual public health emergencies happening…This issue in terms of drug toxicity deaths is not going away.”
On average, she said more than four souls are being lost each day in B.C. due to toxicity levels in drugs.
The coroners report says no deaths have been reported at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites.
“But we’ve been reporting that for 4 1/2 years,” Enns said. “I think there’s a callout for us as citizens, as families, as loved ones, as friends, we need to really look out for each other in this time when people are isolating more. Isolation is a terrible thing for anyone on any given day, but it can be especially damaging for people who already feel isolated for other reasons. This is a significant contributor to why we’ve seen such an increase in drug toxicity deaths this past year.”
The issue crosses all levels of government, added Enns, who feels the federal government needs to decriminalize use.
“We’re criminalizing people for a chronic, relapsing medical condition. That’s not helpful in any way. We need to do a lot of things, and we all need to do what we have the power to influence.”
Island Health provides an overdose prevention and supervised consumption location at 941C England Ave. in downtown Courtenay. The service includes harm reduction supplies, support and education, and referrals to other services. It operates seven days a week from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., though staff are experimenting with longer hours from 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. Enter through the blue door on the left. Call (250) 331-8524 for more information.