Overdose deaths declined through the summer of 2019, new data from the B.C. Coroners Service shows. But despite the positive trend, the numbers of deaths each month remain high enough to only be described as a crisis, a tragedy, and a total failure of public policy and authorities’ response.
There were 70 illicit-drug overdose deaths across B.C. last July and then 79 in August, according to the coroner’s latest bi-monthly report.
That marks the first time since October 2016 that the monthly number has fallen below 80. It also continues a decline in overdose deaths that began in January 2019.
It’s a positive development, to be sure. Based on the first eight months of data, B.C. is projected to see 1,035 fatal overdoses by the end of 2019.
That would represent a decline of about one third from previous years, when there were 1,541 overdose deaths in 2018 and 1,496 the year before that.
Again, good news. However, 1,000 deaths per year is a number that was once beyond B.C. health officials’ worst nightmares.
Before the synthetic-opioid fentanyl began replacing heroin in B.C. in 2013, the province only experienced a fraction of the deaths it sees today.
From 2001 to 2010, the average number of drug-overdose deaths B.C. saw each year was 204—roughly one-fifth the number of deaths that today British Columbians are greeting with “cautious optimism”.
One thousand deaths in one year is a catastrophe.
What’s more, as the Straight reported last August, 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.
“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,” Vancouver Coastal Health chief medical health officer Dr. Patricia Daly said interviewed for that story. “We are seeing the benefit of harm-reduction services.”
There are two drugs responsible for B.C.’s overdose crisis. Those are fentanyl, a synthetic opioid significantly more potent than heroin, and carfentanil, another synthetic opioid that’s significantly more dangerous than fentanyl.
Carfentanil numbers in the B.C. coroner’s October 16 report are especially troubling.
“Carfentanil has been detected in 119 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in 2019 and 35 deaths in 2018,” it reads.
Carfentanil has swept through Vancouver before, each time resulting in a sharp increase in deaths. Through the winter of 2016, for example, monthly deaths soared from 64 in October 2016 to 161 deaths in December 2016.
If carfentanil appears in B.C.’s illicit drug supply with greater frequency, as the coroner’s latest report suggests, it’s very possible the decline in deaths B.C. has seen through 2019 may not last.