The first six months of 2019 saw nearly one-third fewer overdose deaths than the first six months of 2018.
It’s a signal that, five years into a health emergency that’s claimed 5,790 lives since 2013, B.C.’s opioid epidemic might finally have entered a period of respite.
There were 73 illicit-drug overdose deaths across B.C. in June 2019, according to a new B.C. Coroners Service report on the crisis.
That’s down from 86 deaths in May, 88 in April, and 114 in March.
When a government can claim progress on a problem like the overdose crisis, it usually shares statistics with proud quotes from politicians and summons journalists to a press conference so that reporters can capture video for the evening news. But the province released its latest monthly report on the epidemic with only a dry media release consisting of a few bullet points.
“For the first six months of 2019, there were 538 illicit drug toxicity deaths, a decrease of approximately 30% over the same six-month period in 2018 when 763 were reported,” it reads. “Fentanyl was detected in more than four of every five illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2018 and 2019.”
The restrained tone reflects the fact that, while deaths are down quite a bit from the previous year, they remain miles above what was once considered “normal” in B.C.
So far, the province is on track to see 1,076 fatal overdoses in 2019.
That’s significantly fewer than 1,535 deaths in 2018.
But 1,076 is still unfathomably higher than the annual average of 204 deaths that B.C. experienced from 2001 to 2010.
In addition, as the Straight reported on August 7, while fatal drug overdoses are down, other indicators persistently suggest there is still no end to the crisis in sight.
For example, 911 calls for overdoses are up.
B.C. saw 12,260 overdose calls in 2015, then 19,280 the year after that, 23,440 in 2017, 23,660 in 2018, and now is on track for a projected 24,800 in 2019.
"We’re cautiously optimistic," Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) chief medical health officer Dr. Patricia Daly said interviewed for that story. "But all over the province, including here [Vancouver], if you look at the 911 calls and ambulance calls [for overdoses], they are not down.
“The risk of an overdose is still the same, but you’re less likely to die because we’ve expanded [access to] naloxone and created more opportunities for people to consume [drugs] under the observation of others who can reverse an overdose,” Daly continued. “We are seeing the benefit of harm-reduction services: the distribution of [the overdose-reversal drug] naloxone and overdose-prevention sites.”