The B.C. Coroners Service recorded 153 deaths from suspected illicit-drug overdoses in November, a slight decrease compared to the previous month but a figure that pushes the death toll for the year past 1,500.
A statement on Tuesday said the number of deaths in November is a seven per cent drop from October, but an 89 per cent increase from November 2019. The service said 1,548 people now have died of an overdose this year, compared to 983 for all of last year.
“Tragically, as we reach the end of 2020, our province is facing a record-breaking year for lives lost due to a toxic illicit drug supply,” said chief coroner Lisa Lapointe wrote in the statement.
“In the five years of this public health emergency, more than 6,500 families have experienced the grief and sadness of losing a loved one to the challenging medical condition of drug addiction.”
The previous record for overdose deaths in a year was in 2018, when 1,549 people died. Given the province has now seen 1,548 in 2020, with a full month to go, B.C. is almost certain to surpass the grim record.
More than half of all overdoses this year — 55 per cent — have happened inside private homes. Of those who died, 70 per cent were between 30 and 59 years old, while 80 per cent were men.
Advocates call for safe supply, decriminalization
For months, experts have said the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening the overdose situation in B.C.
The supply of illicit drugs grew more toxic when the U.S.-Canada border was closed and suppliers were forced to find other sources. The pandemic has also impeded access to key harm-reduction services like supervised consumption sites, leaving more users to use alone.
“There isn’t a single family or person in the province who hasn’t been impacted in some way by the two public health emergencies. One life lost is one too many,” Sheila Malcolmson, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, wrote in an emailed statement on Monday.
“These are our parents, children, friends and neighbours.”
Advocates continue to call for decriminalization and a nationwide safe supply of drugs to help save lives.
British Columbia’s government created a safe supply program in March, allowing doctors and nurses to prescribe pharmaceutical alternatives to illicit drugs. In October, city councillors in Vancouver voted unanimously to ask the federal government to decriminalize small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use.
Karen Ward, a drug policy and poverty reduction consultant with the City of Vancouver, said the concept of the safe supply program needs to be expanded across the country.
“It’s like you’re struggling to tread water in a tsunami,” she said in an interview with The Canadian Press, referring to the number of overdoses in B.C.
Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria continue to see the highest number of illicit overdose deaths in B.C.
Measuring by health authority, the highest rates of deaths are in the Northern Health and Vancouver Coastal Health regions, with 44 and 38 deaths per 100,000 people, respectively. Rates in the Island Health region have been dropping.
No deaths have been recorded at a supervised consumption site.