The City of Vancouver saw more fatal overdoses in 2017 than ever before. More than triple the number observed just a few years ago, in 2014, council heard today (January 17).
“We lost 335 of our residents,” Mary Clare Zak, Vancouver’s managing director of social policy, said delivering a presentation.
That compares to 234 illicit-drug overdose deaths in 2016, 136 in 2015, and 101 in 2014.
Zak emphasized that 335 deaths in 2017 is a preliminary figure provided by the Vancouver Police Department. She said it could change as the B.C. Coroners Service completes additional investigations.
Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services chief Darrell Reid stressed that Vancouver’s opioid crisis, which is largely driven by the synthetic-opioid fentanyl, is not a Downtown Eastside problem.
“We want to make sure that everyone understands, this has become a city-wide problem,” he said.
Dr. Patricia Daly, executive lead at B.C.’s new Provincial Overdose Emergency Response Centre and vice-president of public health with Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), presented a preliminary estimate for the number of overdose deaths across B.C. She said that in 2017, the number will surpass 1,400, compared to 985 in 2016, 518 in 2015, and 369 in 2014.
Daly emphasized that more than 1,400 deaths in 2017 means B.C. now sees an average of four fatal overdoses each day.
She however added there are reasons for cautious optimism.
“The rate of increase in deaths has slowed,” Daly said. “That doesn’t mean that we’ve seen a decrease. But between 2015 and 2016, the rate of overdose deaths nearly doubles. It went up 86 percent. And this year, as of the end of October, that rate of increase had slowed to about 46 percent.”
Daly also drew attention to month-to-month data that suggests deaths may finally be slowing down.
“Since April, monthly deaths have decreased,” she explained. “We have to be cautious. We were all concerned that in November, December, with the cold weather, we might see another increase, and we don’t have the final coroner’s data for that period. Although preliminary data from VPD…showed that we did not see that spike. So this is some good news.”
Daly said the possible decline in deaths cannot entirely be attributed to government action. But she added that where progress has been made, it’s largely the result of harm-reduction initiatives, such as drug-testing equipment that was recently made available in select communities and the establishment of overdose-prevention sites.
“We can say that if we hadn’t done a number of the things we’ve done over the last year, two years, we know we would have had more deaths,” she said. “We can’t take, necessarily, credit for that downward trend. But I think we are doing some of the things we need to do to continue to see that death rate drop.”
Daly gave credit to activists—mainly Sarah Blyth, Ann Livingston, and Chris Ewart—who she said led the way on the establishment of overdose-prevention sites in response to the arrival of fentanyl.
“I think if anything has helped reduce our death rate—if we can point to one thing that’s really made a huge difference—it would be the establishment of overdose-prevention sites,” Daly said.