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Toxic drug deaths claim 42 lives in New West in 2021

Lives of about eight people a month saved monthly at safe consumption site
Staff at the new health contact centre in New Westminster created a photo collage as part of their commitment to raise awareness about the drug poisoning crisis.

Toxic drug deaths claimed the lives of 42 people in New West in 2021

The BC Coroners Service has released preliminary data showing the toxic illicit drug supply claimed the lives of at least 2,224 British Columbians in 2021 – including 42 in New Westminster. That makes 2021 the deadliest year for overdoses in New West, topping the 37 deaths reported in 2018 and 2020.

"This public health emergency has impacted families and communities across the province and shows no sign of abating. In 2021 alone, more than 2,200 families experienced the devastating loss of a loved one. In the past seven years, the rate of death due to illicit drug toxicity in our province has risen more than 400%,” said chief coroner Lisa Lapointe. “Drug toxicity is now second only to cancers in B.C. for potential years of life lost."

In 2021, Vancouver reported the highest number of illicit drug deaths in B.C. at 524, followed by Surrey (281) and Victoria (126). Other B.C. communities seeing a significant number of overdose deaths were: Abbotsford – 86; Burnaby –78; Kamloops – 77; Kelowna – 73; Langley – 56; Prince George and Chilliwack – 55 each; Nanaimo – 49; Maple Ridge – 45; New Westminster and Vernon – 42 each; and Richmond – 32.

Lynda Fletcher-Gordon, acting executive director of the New West-based Lower Mainland Purpose Society for Youth and Families, said people have gone back and forth between the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver and New Westminster for years.

“New Westminster was the place to come if you were sick or tired and wanted to escape the DTES until you felt better. More recently, people come from Vancouver to escape violence there and also come from Surrey,” she said. “I don’t know how many people who died lived permanently in New Westminster or how many of those were from other communities. In any event, it doesn’t matter where the people lived permanently, they are dead and they shouldn’t be.”

Fletcher-Gordon said New Westminster’s mayor and council have “worked diligently” to ensure that services are in place that will save lives, such as the safe consumption site and other outreach services that target finding people who are using outdoors.

 A health contact centre, which includes a safe consumption site, opened in downtown New Westminster in April 2021. It’s operated by the Purpose Society.

“Our monthly statistics show that staff administer naloxone, on average, eight times a month,” said Fletcher-Gordon. “It is standard practice to give oxygen or breathes, call 911 and then administer naloxone. There are a number of staff, so someone will be calling 911 while another staff will be tending to the person.  Some individuals are willing to go in the ambulance and others will refuse to go and leave before the ambulance arrives. If the person leaves, we cancel the ambulance in order to save resources.”

According to the BC Coroners Service, no deaths have been reported at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites.

While the number of illicit drug deaths in New Westminster didn’t increase at the same rate as those in some neighbouring communities, such as Burnaby, where deaths increases from 57 in 2020 to 78 in 2021, Fletcher-Gordon said it’s hard to say what role the safe consumption site played in preventing more deaths.

“There are safe consumption sites in many communities,” she said. “It would be wonderful to be able to say that operating a safe consumption site is the reason that the death rate is lesser in New Westminster than in some other cities. However, there are too many variables to be able to draw that conclusion. There are outreach workers who save lives almost every day.”

Fletcher-Gordon also noted the extreme weather response shelter is now running at capacity and is hosting 50 people a night when the weather is bad.

“People are in a supervised and safe place, and that may save lives,” she said. “However, we can say with certainty that, on average, eight people a month don’t die because they are using the safe consumption site.”

Staggering statistics

In 2021, 71% of the people who died of suspected drug toxicity in B.C. were between 30 to 59 years of age and 78% of them were male.

Coroners service statistics also show that more than half of the deaths in B.C. (55.5%) occurred in private residences, 24.9% were in other residences and 15.1% happened outside. Other deaths occurred in public buildings, correctional facilities and police cells, occupational sites and medical facilities.

“It is time that politicians and policy makers put the toxic drug supply, that has resulted in the deaths of so many people, front and centre and addressed the need for a safe supply,” said Fletcher-Gordon. “Yes, many people will be opposed to this, but only until drugs touch their lives. Some people feel like their family and friends are immune until someone close to them dies from toxic drugs.  And, that is what is happening. People are dying at home, alone behind a closed doors. They were recreational users who took toxic drugs.”

According to the BC Coroners Service, the 2,224 deaths in 2021 is 26% more than the 1,767 illicit drug-related deaths it investigated in 2020, and equates to an average of 6.1 lives lost every day. It stated that more than 8,800 British Columbians have been lost to toxic drugs since the public health emergency into substance-related harms was first declared in April 2016.

The coroners service reports that the last two months of 2021 saw the largest number of suspected illicit drug deaths ever recorded in the province, with 210 deaths in November and an additional 215 in December.

"We need decision-makers at all levels to recognize and respond to this public health emergency with the level of urgency it demands," Lapointe said in a news release. "The reality is this: every day we wait to act, six more people will die. COVID-19 has shown what is possible when governments act decisively to save lives. And in order to save lives in this public-health emergency, we need to provide people with access to the substances they need, where and when they need them. Time has run out for research and discussion. It is time to take action."

Services offered at the local health contact centre include include witnessed consumption, harm reduction supplies, take-home naloxone kits, training on naloxone, education on safer drug use, referrals to treatment centres and health services, and drug testing.

“Purpose now has an FTIR spectrometer machine and can test drugs for small amounts of many toxic substances,” Fletcher-Gordon said. “People can bring a tiny amount of their drug in and get it tested, and this will also safe lives.”

The BC Coroners Service reports that toxicological testing underscores the reality that the illicit drug supply continues to be unstable and increasingly toxic.

“Benzodiazepines create significant challenges for life-saving efforts as naloxone does not reverse its effects,” said the report. “As with previous reporting, almost all test results included the presence of multiple substances.”

The safe consumption site in New Westminster, located at 40 Begbie St. (entrance is on Alexander Street) is currently open from 3 to 11 p.m.

“When I come to work at 6:45 a.m., I see people using on the street,” said Fletcher-Gordon. “It makes good sense to extend the hours to get these people inside where they can be helped if their drugs are toxic.”

Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus

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