A woman holds up a sign bearing a photograph of Morgan Goodridge during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver on Saturday, August 15, 2020. The B.C. Coroners Service reported a record number of 175 overdose deaths related to illicit drugs in June. Approximately 5,000 people have died due to illicit-drug overdoses since a public health emergency was declared in 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A woman holds up a sign bearing a photograph of Morgan Goodridge during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver on Saturday, August 15, 2020. The B.C. Coroners Service reported a record number of 175 overdose deaths related to illicit drugs in June. Approximately 5,000 people have died due to illicit-drug overdoses since a public health emergency was declared in 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Former health officials, advocates reflect on anniversary of B.C.’s overdose emergency

The year of the pandemic saw record-high overdose deaths

When British Columbia’s provincial health officer declared an emergency over the overdose crisis five years ago, he said it was because those who died deserved more of a response.

Since then, more than 7,000 have died in “unnecessary” deaths, said Dr. Perry Kendall.

“If you look at the map of B.C., people are dying in every town and village in this province,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “They’re not all people who are homeless … we have people who are employed, or unemployed, who have families and children. They are us,” said Kendall, who was B.C.’s public health officer from 1999 to 2018.

Annual deaths hit an initial peak of 1,550 in 2018 before dropping in 2019 and then surging to record numbers during the COVID-19 health emergency to 1,724 in last year.

B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe blamed deadlier street drugs for part of the rise. Almost one in five deaths in January involved extreme levels of fentanyl concentration. She also said COVID-19 was isolating people and they were dying alone.

Safe supply and drug treatment for those who want it should be the main focus now, Kendall said.

He credited both the former Liberal and current NDP provincial governments for moving addiction issues forward, but said the spike in toxic drug deaths has become overshadowed by COVID-19.

“We aren’t treating the overdose crisis with the attention we ought to be giving it,” he said.

Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions, wasn’t available for comment but told a Surrey Board of Trade event Tuesday that COVID-19 has been hard on people who use drugs.

“The stigma that drives people to use alone and a pandemic that isolates them even further, and you have a terrible recipe for a surge in overdose deaths,” she said.

Malcolmson said her government is committed to decriminalization efforts, but that has been limited by a lack of response from the federal government.

The City of Vancouver recently submitted an application to Health Canada outlining that people should be allowed to carry a three-day supply of various drugs as it seeks to get a federal exemption to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs.

The B.C. government has made several commitments to helping drug users, with supervised consumption sites scattered across the province in addition to volunteer-run overdose prevention sites in many cities.

B.C. announced a safe supply of pharmaceutical alternatives in 2020, with doctors and nurse practitioners given the ability to prescribe to those who use drugs.

But the provincial government could be doing more to help, said a woman who lost her son to an overdose and co-founded an advocacy group because of his death.

Leslie McBain, of Moms Stop the Harm, said she’s “beyond frustrated” that actions such as safe supply have yet to be pushed through to help drug users.

“Here we are, five years later with more deaths, no real, fulsome, safe supply of drugs for people who need them and still, the government seems to be doing research and writing up plans we never see,” she said. “I’m disappointed.”

READ MORE: B.C. overdose deaths still rising five years after public health emergency declared

Corey Ranger, a registered nurse with Victoria’s Safer initiative, said he’s attended 48 overdoses in the past year, much more than in the previous years.

“It’s been completely overwhelming,” he said. “We’re at the fifth-year anniversary and this is our first and most readily ignored crisis.”

Safer provides pharmaceutical drugs to people at risk of dying from a toxic drug supply.

The volatility of the street drugs makes it harder to resuscitate people when they overdose, Ranger added.

He said the provincial government needs to make decriminalization a priority.

Nick Wells, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

B.C. overdosesopioid crisisopioidsoverdose crisis

Just Posted

Pictured above is a BCEHS re-enactment of paramedics attending an overdose. Toxic illicit drugs have claimed the lives of 498 British Columbians in the first three months of 2021, said the BC Coroners Service. (BCEHS photo)
Increase in overdose cases a concern: Fort St. James RCMP

Police issue public health announcement

Jim Woodruff from the Vanderhoof Curling Club has won volunteer of the year by Curl BC. (Photo submitted)
Jim Woodruff awarded Curl BC Volunteer of the Year

“It really is fun making nice ice.”

A groundbreaking ceremony for Cluculz Lake’s new fire hall will take place Tuesday, June 22. The current fire hall is able to only store one apparatus. (Photo submitted)
New fire hall on the way for Cluculz Lake

Approximate $950,000 facility anticipated to be completed by this fall

Prince Rupert was one of the first B.C. communities targeted for mass vaccination after a steep rise in infections. Grey area marks community-wide vaccine distribution. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
B.C. tracks big drop in COVID-19 infections after vaccination

Prince Rupert, Indigenous communities show improvement

Police are at Ecole Mount Prevost Elementary but the students have been evacuated. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Gardner finds buried explosives, sparking evacuation of Cowichan school

Students removed from school in an ‘abundance of caution’

A COVID-19 patient receives oxygen outside a hospital in Jammu, India, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP/Channi Anand)
B.C. donates $500K to Red Cross COVID-19 relief efforts in India

The money will provide oxygen cylinders and ambulances for patients in communities grappling with the virus

Superintendent Aaron Paradis, community services officer with the Surrey RCMP, during a media availability about a recent drug bust in Port Coquitlam. (Photo: Lauren Collins)
Police seize 13 million ‘potentially fatal doses’ of pure fentanyl at B.C. drug lab

The evidence was seized at large, illicit drug manufacturing site in Port Coquitlam

B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth debates the province’s latest measure to control crime, March 10, 2021. The legislation allows police to impound vehicles used to transport weapons and further restricts sale of vehicle and body armour. (B.C. legislature video)
B.C. seeking ways to ‘name and shame’ gangsters, minister says

Mike Farnworth appeals to family members to talk to police

Jonathan Prest had to climb way up to the top of a dead red cedar tree to rescue a terrified cat, but he made it up and down successfully. (Facebook photos)
Tree cutter rescues cat stuck 100 feet up a dead and dried-out cedar

Jonathan Prest put himself in extreme peril to get a terrified cat out of a dangerous situation

The Greater Victoria School District continues to face backlash over its wording and approach to Indigenous learners in its 2021-2022 budget talks. (Black Press Media file photo)
School district’s approach to Indigenous learners leaves Victoria teachers ‘disgusted’

Backlash grows over ‘pattern of colonial thinking permeating the leadership’

Italian-Canadian prisoners at the Kananaskis prisoner of war camp in Alberta. (University of Calgary/Contributed)
Italian moved to Okanagan with hope; he ended up being sent to a WWII internment camp

Raymond Lenzi shares his grandfather’s story ahead of Canada’s planned formal apology to Italian-Canadians

Then-minister Rich Coleman, escorted by Victoria Police, makes his way to the east wing amid a protest blocking the legislature entrances before the throne speech in Victoria, B.C., Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. money laundering inquiry testimony ends today with reappearance of Rich Coleman

Responsible for the gaming file off and on from 2001 to 2013, Coleman been recalled after his initial testimony to the Cullen Commission last month

Most Read