A woman holds up a sign bearing a photograph of Morgan Goodridge during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver on Saturday, August 15, 2020. The B.C. Coroners Service reported a record number of 175 overdose deaths related to illicit drugs in June. Approximately 5,000 people have died due to illicit-drug overdoses since a public health emergency was declared in 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A woman holds up a sign bearing a photograph of Morgan Goodridge during a memorial march to remember victims of overdose deaths in Vancouver on Saturday, August 15, 2020. The B.C. Coroners Service reported a record number of 175 overdose deaths related to illicit drugs in June. Approximately 5,000 people have died due to illicit-drug overdoses since a public health emergency was declared in 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Former health officials, advocates reflect on anniversary of B.C.’s overdose emergency

The year of the pandemic saw record-high overdose deaths

When British Columbia’s provincial health officer declared an emergency over the overdose crisis five years ago, he said it was because those who died deserved more of a response.

Since then, more than 7,000 have died in “unnecessary” deaths, said Dr. Perry Kendall.

“If you look at the map of B.C., people are dying in every town and village in this province,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “They’re not all people who are homeless … we have people who are employed, or unemployed, who have families and children. They are us,” said Kendall, who was B.C.’s public health officer from 1999 to 2018.

Annual deaths hit an initial peak of 1,550 in 2018 before dropping in 2019 and then surging to record numbers during the COVID-19 health emergency to 1,724 in last year.

B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe blamed deadlier street drugs for part of the rise. Almost one in five deaths in January involved extreme levels of fentanyl concentration. She also said COVID-19 was isolating people and they were dying alone.

Safe supply and drug treatment for those who want it should be the main focus now, Kendall said.

He credited both the former Liberal and current NDP provincial governments for moving addiction issues forward, but said the spike in toxic drug deaths has become overshadowed by COVID-19.

“We aren’t treating the overdose crisis with the attention we ought to be giving it,” he said.

Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions, wasn’t available for comment but told a Surrey Board of Trade event Tuesday that COVID-19 has been hard on people who use drugs.

“The stigma that drives people to use alone and a pandemic that isolates them even further, and you have a terrible recipe for a surge in overdose deaths,” she said.

Malcolmson said her government is committed to decriminalization efforts, but that has been limited by a lack of response from the federal government.

The City of Vancouver recently submitted an application to Health Canada outlining that people should be allowed to carry a three-day supply of various drugs as it seeks to get a federal exemption to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs.

The B.C. government has made several commitments to helping drug users, with supervised consumption sites scattered across the province in addition to volunteer-run overdose prevention sites in many cities.

B.C. announced a safe supply of pharmaceutical alternatives in 2020, with doctors and nurse practitioners given the ability to prescribe to those who use drugs.

But the provincial government could be doing more to help, said a woman who lost her son to an overdose and co-founded an advocacy group because of his death.

Leslie McBain, of Moms Stop the Harm, said she’s “beyond frustrated” that actions such as safe supply have yet to be pushed through to help drug users.

“Here we are, five years later with more deaths, no real, fulsome, safe supply of drugs for people who need them and still, the government seems to be doing research and writing up plans we never see,” she said. “I’m disappointed.”

READ MORE: B.C. overdose deaths still rising five years after public health emergency declared

Corey Ranger, a registered nurse with Victoria’s Safer initiative, said he’s attended 48 overdoses in the past year, much more than in the previous years.

“It’s been completely overwhelming,” he said. “We’re at the fifth-year anniversary and this is our first and most readily ignored crisis.”

Safer provides pharmaceutical drugs to people at risk of dying from a toxic drug supply.

The volatility of the street drugs makes it harder to resuscitate people when they overdose, Ranger added.

He said the provincial government needs to make decriminalization a priority.

Nick Wells, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

B.C. overdosesopioid crisisopioidsoverdose crisis

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Adrienne Rogers (LPN) and Tracy McConnell (RN) on the Victoria Hospice Unit. (Photo courtesy of Victoria Hospice)
Victoria Hospice bereavement counsellors dealing with a tsunami of grief

Last year, Victoria Hospice provided end-of-life care to more than 1,000 people

Paddles sit stacked and ready at a rowing regatta on Elk Lake in 2018. (Black Press Media file photo)
Greater Victoria junior girls rowing team nabs first in national Row to Tokyo challenge

Young Victoria City Rowing Club members row more than 2,250 km

Habitat Acquisition Trust has received provincial funding to help restore Garry oak ecosystems on southern Vancouver Island. (Photo by Jeremy da Silva)
Funding boosts restoration efforts for Vancouver Island’s Garry oak ecosystems

Habitat Acquisition Trust will take on several Garry oak ecosystem restoration projects

A Nexii roof panel is lifted during construction of a Starbucks in Abbotsford. Alexzi Building Solutions will be building a manufacturing plant in Langford or North Cowichan to produce the sustainable construction panels. (Photo courtesy of Alexzi Building Solutions)
Langford eyed for facility to make green building alternative to concrete

Langford, North Cowichan possible sites for plant to create sustainable construction panels

(The Canadian Press)
Trudeau won’t say whether Canada supports patent waiver for COVID-19 vaccines

‘Canada is at the table to help find a solution’

The body of Brenda Ware, 35, was found along Highway 93 in Kootenay National Park on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (RCMP handout)
RCMP ask for tips after woman’s body found in Kootenay National Park

Brenda Ware was found along Highway 93 in the park, 54 kilometres north of the town of Radium

People pass the red hearts on the COVID-19 Memorial Wall mourning those who have died, opposite the Houses of Parliament on the Embankment in London, Wednesday, April 7, 2021. On May 3, the British government announced that only one person had died of COVID-19 in the previous 24 hours. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kirsty Wigglesworth
For a view of a COVID-19 future, Canadians should look across the pond

Britain, like Canada, is one of the only countries in the world to delay second doses for several months

Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his 100th point this season with Leon Draisaitl (29) against the Vancouver Canucks during second period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 8, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton superstar McDavid hits 100-point mark as Oilers edge Canucks 4-3

NHL scoring leader needs just 53 games to reach century mark

Nuns of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, carry some of her relics during a vigil of prayer in preparation for the canonization of Mother Teresa in the St. John in Latheran Basilica at the Vatican, Friday, Sept. 2, 2016. In which city did she do much of her charitable work? (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
QUIZ: How much do you know about these motherhood issues?

In honour of Mother’s Day, take this 10-question quiz

A map showing where the most number of cases were recorded from April 23 to 29. This map, revealing a breakdown of infections by neighborhood, was pulled from a data package leaked to the Vancouver Sun last week (and independently verified).
36 Abbotsford schools flagged for COVID-19 exposures in the last 2 weeks, shattering record

Clearbrook Elementary recorded an ‘exposure’ on all 11 school days

Island Health has confirmed COVID-19 exposures at Ecole des Deux Mondes in Campbell River on May 4 and 5, and at Mill Bay Nature School in Mill Bay on April 28, 29, 30 and May 3. (Metro Creative photo)
Two new COVID-19 school exposures confirmed by Island Health

Health authority contacting anyone exposed at Ecole des Deux Mondes, Mill Bay Nature School

Most Read