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

FILE – Perry Bellegarde, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, takes part in an event on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Indigenous Peoples Day must be a ‘call to action’, says Assembly of First Nations chief

Discovery of children at Kamloops residential school site must lead to change, Perry Bellegarde says

Christina Lake Fire Department’s Chief Joe Geary eyes the camera from behind the wheel of the department’s 40-year-old bush truck. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
Christina Lake FD needs new equipment, upgrades, prompting loan by RDKB

It’s not whether the department needs the equipment, it’s how voters will pay for it, says Regional District

The pilot of this single-engine propeller plane was unhurt after crash-landing in a Como Road orchard Friday, June 18. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
Plane crash lands into Grand Forks orchard, pilot injured

RCMP have secured the crash site, pending investigation by Transport Canada

Students at Creston Valley Secondary School put together an art installation of a replica residential school room. (Photo by Kelsey Yates)
Creston students create art installation of residential school room

The replica was decorated with a small bed, school uniform, and notes written with pleas for help

Greenwood Elementary’s Nelson Thompson (Grade 5) and Lincoln Simmonds (Grade 6) take a fun-filled turn on the swing at Lions Park Thursday, June 17. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
IN PHOTOGRAPHS: ‘This is yours now,’ Greenwood Mayor tells children at playground opening

The opening ceremony at Lions Park was attended by kids from Greenwood Elementary Thursday, June 17

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

Investigators use a bucket to help recover human remains at a home burned in the Camp fire, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in Magalia, Calif. Many of the missing in the deadly Northern California wildfire are elderly residents in Magalia, a forested town of about 11,000 north of the destroyed town of Paradise. (AP Photo/John Locher)
‘Forever War’ with fire has California battling forests instead

Five of the state’s largest-ever blazes seared California last year, as authorities tackle prevention

Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto and IOC President Thomas Bach, on a screen, speak during a five=party online meeting at Harumi Island Triton Square Tower Y in Tokyo Monday, June 21, 2021. The Tokyo Olympics will allow some local fans to attend when the games open in just over a month, Tokyo organizing committee officials and the IOC said on Monday. (Rodrigo Reyes Marin/Pool Photo via AP)
Tokyo Olympics to allow Japanese fans only, with strict limits

Organizers set a limit of 50% capacity — up to a maximum of 10,000 fans

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The border crossing into the United States is seen during the COVID-19 pandemic in Lacolle, Que. on February 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Border quarantine to soon lift for fully vaccinated Canadians

Eligible travellers must still take multiple COVID-19 tests

A portion of the George Road wildfire burns near Lytton, B.C. in this Friday, June 18, 2021 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, BC Wildfire Service *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Blaze near Lytton spread across steep terrain, says BC Wildfire Service

Fire began Wednesday and is suspected to be human-caused, but remains under investigation

Blair Lebsack, owner of RGE RD restaurant, poses for a portrait in the dining room, in Edmonton, Friday, June 18, 2021. Canadian restaurants are having to find ways to deal with the rising cost of food. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Canadian restaurateurs grapple with rising food costs, menu prices expected to rise

Restaurants are a low margin industry, so there’s not a lot of room to work in additional costs

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
Fort St. John man arrested after allegedly inviting sexual touching from children

Two children reported the incident to a trusted adult right away

Most Read