Vancouver morgues have reached a point where they are “frequently full”, forcing health authorities to store bodies at funeral homes.
The B.C. Coroners Service made that admission in response to an inquiry by the Straight about unprecedented numbers of overdoses linked to fentanyl and other drugs.
“The recent increase in deaths from illicit drug overdoses has put increased pressure on an already-stressed system,” said Barb McLintock, a spokesperson for the coroners service.
The city's primary morgue is at Vancouver General Hospital. It has space for 70 bodies plus a small area set aside for police cases.
McLintock cautioned that “full” is not a word authorities use to describe morgue operations, given that spaces are always coming available as they are simultaneously occupied by new additions. But McLintock conceded that at this point, it is accurate to describe B.C. morgues as “frequently full”, and she noted that fentanyl overdoses are largely to blame.
There were 622 illicit drug-overdose deaths in B.C. during the first 10 months of 2016. That’s up from 510 during all of 2015 and 370 the previous year. Fentanyl has been detected in approximately 60 percent of fatal overdoses in 2016. That’s up from 31 percent in 2015 and 25 percent in 2014.
Last June, the Straight reported that the province’s chief coroner, Lisa LaPointe, said that so many people had died of overdoses in B.C. this year that illicit drugs are now killing more people than automobile accidents.
“Last year, there were 300 deaths in motor vehicle incidents, and this year, as the minister said, we’ve had 308 deaths already from illicit drug overdoses,” LaPointe said at a news conference. “If this trend were to continue, we’d be looking at about 750 deaths this year. So it’s hugely significant. The number of people dying from illicit drug overdoses is higher than any other unnatural category.”
McLintock said it is the sharp increase in drug-overdose deaths that has brought the province’s morgues to capacity.
“Morgue space has for some years been at a premium, especially in the Lower Mainland and especially in the winter months when natural deaths in hospitals also usually increase,” she said. “Funeral homes are also used not infrequently, in some smaller communities and/or as back up to hospital facilities.”