The drug-poisoning crisis claimed the lives of four more people in New West in the first month of 2023.
Preliminary reporting from by the BC Coroners Service shows that the toxic, unregulated drug supply resulted in the deaths of at least 211 British Columbians in January, including four in New Westminster. That markets the eighth time in the past 16 months that the number of monthly deaths in B.C. has topped 200.
"Once again, our agency is reporting on preventable losses of life in heart-breaking numbers," said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner. "We are nearing the seventh anniversary of the declaration of the public-health emergency into substance-related harms, and the drug-poisoning crisis continues to cost lives and communities at an unprecedented rate. Toxic drugs pose a constant and ever-present danger to anyone who uses drugs. Anyone using any substance purchased on the unregulated illicit drug market is at risk of serious harm or death."
The number of suspected illicit drug toxicity related deaths in January equates to an average of about 6.8 lives lost per day, said the coroners service. Of those, seven out of every 10 decedents were between 30 and 59 years of age and nearly 80 per cent were male – data that’s consistent with BC Coroners Service reporting throughout the nearly seven year old public-health emergency,
“At least 11,195 deaths have been caused by illicit drug toxicity since the public-health emergency was first declared in April 2016,” said a press release from the coroners service. “There continues to be no evidence that prescribed safe supply is contributing to illicit drug deaths.”
According to the coroners service, the overall, the rate of death in B.C. in January was 47 per 100,000 individuals. That compares to 20.5 in 2016, the year the public-health emergency was declared.
What happened in 2022?
In 2022, at least 2,272 British Columbians lost their lives to toxic drugs – the second-highest number of deaths investigated by the BC Coroners Service in a calendar year, and only 34 fewer than the 2,306 deaths reported to the agency in 2021.
Thirty of those people died in New Westminster.
Last year’s death rate was a decrease from 46 in 2021 and 36 in 2020, but a jump from the 20 deaths in New West 2019.
Monthly statistics, as well as the 2022 numbers, are considered preliminary until the investigations are completed and the final causes of the deaths are established.
First responder impacts
Brad Davie, acting deputy chief with New Westminster Fire and Rescue Services, said the department’s crews responded to more than 500 overdose calls in 2022, which is a continual increase from previous years. He said those calls contributed to the department’s record-high call volumes last year.
“At times, the mental health burden of the opioid crisis can be challenging for our crews; however, we strive to take a compassionate approach to the patient’s emergency response and, in some cases, we have been able to connect the patient with much needed supports and services,” he said in a statement to the Record. “Recently, we had an individual reach out and thank us reporting that he is no longer using opioids and considers his life to be in a better place. The City of New Westminster endorses safe supply, harm reduction, education, and appropriate supports to assist those in need.”
Safe consumption site
It’s been almost two years since the health contact centre – which includes safe consumption services – opened in downtown New Westminster.
From January to December 2022, the health contact centre, operated by the Lower Mainland Purpose Society, had 1,749 visits from people accessing witnessed consumption services. Of those, 186 were from participants who were new to the service in 2022.
According to the Purpose society, there were 62 toxic drug overdose events at the facility in 2022. No deaths were reported.
“The category of toxic drug OD events shows that 62 people would likely have died if someone had not administered naloxone,” said Lynda Fletcher-Gordon, the society’s acting executive director. “Further damage to the person was likely prevented by staff giving the person breaths to ensure the person’s oxygen levels were adequate until the naloxone did its job.”
Since April 2021, the facility has been providing a variety of services including witnessed consumption, access to supplies and information about safer drug use, drug testing and referrals to treatment centres and health services.
Some other 2022 statistics from the health contact centre:
* total outreach interactions — 3,869;
* total harm reduction kits distributed by heath care centre and outreach staff (including smoking and injecting kits) — 5,670;
* total take-home naloxone kits distributed by health care centre and outreach staff —1,692; and
* total referrals made by health care centre and outreach— 681.
According to the BC Coroners Service, two deaths have occurred at an overdose prevention sites in British Columbia, one in 2022 and one in 2023.
Everyone can help
While the safe consumption site is one piece of the harm reduction approach, Fletcher-Gordon recently told the Record that it’s also very important that as many people as possible know the signs of a toxic drug reaction and are trained to administer naloxone.
“This point was harshly made yesterday when a man came into the Purpose building to sit for a minute and get warm; this happens often. He did not use substances while in the building but all of a sudden, he fell sideways out of the chair. He had used drugs before coming in and was now in extreme distress,” she said. “The staff at Purpose are trained, and a tragedy was averted yesterday. The point here is that he wasn’t in the safe consumption site. He was trying to get warm.”
Fletcher-Gordon encourages people to consider getting trained on the administration of naloxone if they know someone who uses drugs or have seen someone laying in a doorway.
“Purpose offers a very robust training program that covers how to approach a person, signs of a toxic drug reaction, the steps taken to administer naloxone and the after care,” she said. “You can request training by calling the Purpose office at 604-526-2522.”
According to the BC Coroners Service, it’s estimated there are more than 80,000 people in B.C. with opioid use disorder and thousands of others who regularly use stimulants such as cocaine.
“All of these members of our communities are currently at risk of sudden death,” said a press release from the coroners service.
What the officials say:
* Lisa Lapointe, B.C.’s chief coroner: "The reality is that these deaths are preventable. Toxicology data confirms that the drug supply in British Columbia is increasingly volatile and life-threatening. The standing committee on health and two BC Coroners Service death review panels are in agreement that we must rapidly increase access to a safer supply of substances, while at the same time, building out a robust system of evidence-based care. Those dying are our family members, neighbours, friends and colleagues. Urgent action is required to reduce the significant risks that tens of thousands of British Columbians are currently facing."
* Dr. Paxton Bach, co-medical director, British Columbia Centre on Substance Use, on 2022 deaths: "These figures reflect the overwhelming number of human stories that we as physicians are seeing on a daily basis. There is no industry, no socio-economic class, no geographic region in the province that is not being touched by this crisis, and for each of these deaths there are 10 more people suffering other life-altering consequences due to non-fatal overdose events. This has gone on for too long, and demands the urgent and co-ordinated response from all sectors that such a crisis deserved from the beginning."
* Dr. Nel Wieman, acting chief medical officer of the First Nations Health Authority: "First Nations people continue to be disproportionately impacted by the ongoing toxic drug crisis in British Columbia. Given that we are nearing the end of the seventh year of a provincewide state of emergency on illicit toxic drugs, it is difficult to accept that more First Nations people in B.C. have died from illicit toxic drug poisonings than from COVID-19. While there is no doubt that this tragic outcome is due in part to First Nations people experiencing stereotyping, racism and discrimination in many different forms, it also leads one to consider whether or not this pressing issue is receiving the level of priority it deserves.”
* New Westminster MLA Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s Minster of Mental Health and Addictions: "Budget 2023 invests more than $1 billion to accelerate our efforts to build an integrated system of care for mental-health and addiction services in our province. We are adding new treatment and recovery beds, creating new community recovery sites and opening the first-of-its-kind seamless model of addictions care at St. Paul's Hospital. …We know that in order to connect people to treatment and recovery, we must first keep them alive. That's why we are continuing to invest and expand harm-reduction measures throughout the province to separate people from the toxic, unpredictable illicit drug supply.”