Overdoses ‘sadly normalized’ in British Columbia: addictions minister

Overdoses ‘sadly normalized’ in British Columbia: addictions minister

VANCOUVER — A rising death toll from overdoses in B.C. during the COVID-19 pandemic has advocates, government officials and health-care workers concerned about a public health emergency that has been overshadowed by the response to the virus.

The BC Coroners Service says 113 people died in March of suspected illicit drug toxicity, the first time in a year that deaths from overdoses across B.C. exceeded 100.

The province declared opioid-related overdoses a public health emergency four years ago. More than 5,000 people have died from overdoses since then.

Judy Darcy, the minister of mental health and addictions, said overdose deaths have become routine to people in B.C.

“I think the reality is that over the last few years, sadly, I hate to say this, sadly, I think the overdose crisis in many peoples’ lives has come to be normalized,” she said.

B.C. was starting to see a drop in overdose-related deaths by the end of 2019, only to see a spike once the COVID-19 pandemic started.

“What you have is almost a COVID perfect storm for people at high risk,” Darcy said.

“We’re talking about two public health emergencies, we’re talking about a more toxic drug supply and we’re talking about people staying home because of COVID-19. The majority of people who die of overdoses die because they’re using alone.”

Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, said it’s difficult to sustain attention on the long-running health emergency in the face of a global pandemic.

“It’s hard to keep it top of mind and people are concerned — and rightly so — about COVID-19, which has had an impact on all of our lives, but it’s about a balance of risk,” she said in an interview.

Drug users living in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side face a bigger risk from overdoses than they do from COVID-19, Daly added.

Toronto also saw a spike in overdoses and related deaths in March and April. Toronto Public Health said the 19 overdose deaths in March were the highest they’ve been in a year.

The Northern Health authority has the highest rate of overdose deaths in B.C. Its medical officer blames a changing drug supply combined with physical distancing measures for part of the increase in deaths.

Another factor could be tied to government relief funds, said Dr. Rakel Kling.

“Some access to some of the government funding and a bit easier access to money from the COVID response could be contributing to different drug use as well,” Kling said in an interview.

Kling wouldn’t speculate on how government relief funds could specifically affect overdoses, besides allowing users to buy different drugs.

Part of the problem facing the heath authority in combating overdoses is its size, she said.

Northern Health is responsible for 300,000 residents ranging across a vast area from central B.C. to the border with the Northwest Territories and Yukon.

“While all of our communities have harm-reduction supplies, it could be quite a distance to access these supplies,” she said, adding that the problem is particularly acute in smaller communities.

To prevent overdoses during the COVID-19 pandemic amid fears the illegal drug supply would become more toxic, B.C. issued guidelines for a safe supply of drugs for users in April.

It allows doctors to prescribe alternative medications for those using illicit drugs, ranging from hydromorphone for opioid users to Dexedrine for those who use stimulants.

Karen Ward, a drug rights advocate as well as a drug policy and poverty reduction consultant with the City of Vancouver, believes the COVID-19 pandemic highlights how lives can be saved when resources and political will are directed at an issue.

“It’s a lack of political will and it’s a choice. This took time to turn into a disaster,” she said of the overdose death toll.

“Thousands of people have died and that didn’t have to happen.”

Darcy called the recent deaths “heartbreaking,” adding that overdoses are not being treated with less importance by the provincial government.

She cited the $608 million the province has allocated to combat overdoses and help drug users since the NDP came to power almost three years ago as evidence of its political will.

“Of course there’s a lot more to do but we have not taken our foot off the pedal for one minute,” Darcy said.

Ward would like the province follow a recommendation from a 2019 report authored by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, who called for the decriminalization of the possession of illegal drugs in the province.

At the time, the government said it would not follow the recommendation as decriminalization fell under federal jurisdiction.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A recent investigation by the RCMP Central Alberta District Crime Reduction Unit led to the arrests of 24 people. (Contributed photo)
24 people arrested following RCMP investigation in central Alberta

Twenty-four people are facing a combined 235 charges following an investigation by… Continue reading

Alberta’s Chief Medicial Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said the 500 deaths from COVID-19 in the province are a tragice milestone. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Alberta hits ‘tragic milestone’ with more COVID-19 deaths

Province up to 500 COVID-19 deaths, adds 1,265 cases

Photo from Town of Sylvan Lake Facebook page
Sylvan Lake communities band together on development plan

Sylvan Lake Intermunicipal Development Plan expected to be approved next spring

Tribe restaurant owner Paul Harris, left, consults with manager Brandon Bouchard about how to proceed under pandemic rules that make it hard for eateries to be profitable. (Contributed photo).
New pandemic rules deemed workable for Red Deer retailers

Stricter COVID-19 reduction measures introduced in lead-up to Christmas

Quentin Lee Strawberry
Man accused in 2019 Red Deer murder will stay behind bars

Quentin Strawberry going to trial next year on second-degree murder charge

FILE - In this Dec. 10, 2015 file photo, actor John Boyega, right, pose with Star Wars characters during the Japan Premiere of their latest film "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" in Tokyo. Boyega stars in Steve McQueen’s “Red White and Blue,” the third film in the director’s anthology of West Indian life in London from the ‘60s through the ’80s. The five-film series will debut Dec. 4. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, File)
John Boyega isn’t going to ‘take the money and shush’

John Boyega isn’t going to ‘take the money and shush’

The Hockley Motel in Mono, Ont., is shown in this undated handout photo. An Ontario motel that served as a backdrop for the beloved CBC sitcom "Schitt's Creek" is up for sale. The Hockley Motel in Mono, about an hour's drive northwest of Toronto, was listed for $2 million today. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Colliers International
Calling all eccentric millionaires: ‘Schitt’s Creek’ motel up for sale for $2 million

Calling all eccentric millionaires: ‘Schitt’s Creek’ motel up for sale for $2 million

RCMP Cpl. Joanie Sidhu speaks about a seizure of illegal drugs, cash and a firearm during a news conference in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. The B.C. Coroners Service says its latest data on illicit drug toxicity deaths show five people are dying every day in the province. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Five people dying every day from toxic illicit drugs in B.C.: Coroner

Five people dying every day from toxic illicit drugs in B.C.: Coroner

(File photo)
Alberta woman charged after allegedly hitting boy with watermelon at B.C. campsite

Police say a disagreement among friends at an Adams Lake campsite turned ugly

Heidi Illingworth, federal ombudsman for victims of crime, takes part in an interview at her office in Ottawa on January 10, 2019. Canada's watchdog for crime victims is calling on Parliament to overhaul the victims' bill of rights, saying the five-year-old legislation has fallen "far short" of delivering on its promise. Federal ombudsman Heidi Illingworth says in a report that rules meant to amplify victims' voices in the justice system have failed to make them heard following "sporadic" implementation of a regime that needs more teeth, clarity and public awareness. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Federal watchdog says victims-rights regime needs overhaul after falling ‘far short’

Federal watchdog says victims-rights regime needs overhaul after falling ‘far short’

Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Ahmed Hussen takes part in a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. His department would likely take the lead in creating a federally funded child-care system. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Liberals to unveil first step on child-care plan in economic update, sources say

Liberals to unveil first step on child-care plan in economic update, sources say

Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Marco Mendicino holds a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Around 1,300 national exemptions to COVID-19 border restrictions given out: officials

Around 1,300 national exemptions to COVID-19 border restrictions given out: officials

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet asks a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. Blanchet is blasting the prime minister's response to the pandemic, saying Justin Trudeau's pledge that vaccines will start to arrive in the coming months is 'unacceptable.' THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada can make vaccines, just not the ones leading the COVID-19 race

Canada can make vaccines, just not the ones leading the COVID-19 race

Most Read