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Prince George sees six illicit drug overdose deaths in May, B.C. records highest totals

There have been 15 local overdose deaths in 2020
Ambulance. (via Brendan Kergin)

Half-a-dozen people in Prince George lost their lives last month to the province’s first public health emergency — the opioid epidemic.

The BC Coroners Service has released its monthly data on illicit drug toxicity deaths and fentanyl-detected drug deaths.

The numbers show that Northern Health still has the highest rate of illicit drug deaths in all of B.C., as the province sees the highest monthly totals ever recorded.

The 170 illicit drug toxicity deaths reported in May mark the highest monthly total ever in British Columbia, representing a 93 per cent increase over the number of deaths seen in May 2019 (88) and a 44 per cent increase over the number of deaths in April 2020 (118).

The number of deaths in each health authority is at, or near, the highest monthly total ever recorded.

Northern Health has the highest rate of illicit drug toxicity deaths (32 deaths per 100,000 individuals) followed by the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority (29 deaths per 100,000 individuals) in 2020. Overall, the rate in B.C. was 26 deaths per 100,000 individuals in 2020.

There were six new illicit drug toxicity deaths recorded in Prince George in May. In April, the city’s year-to-date death total was nine, now rising that statistic to 15.

In 2019, Prince George had a total of 25 deaths and a total of 49 deaths in 2018. There were 12 deaths in May for the Northern Health Authority out of a total of 40 so far for 2020.

"It is both sad and deeply frustrating to see the number of illicit drug deaths reach a new high in B.C. four years after the declaration of a public health emergency," said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner in a news release.

"We still know that illicit drug toxicity death rates in B.C. remain the highest for any jurisdiction in Canada, and every region in B.C. has been impacted. That said, were it not for the dedicated efforts taken to date, the death toll would be higher. We must continue to build on further access to safe supply in B.C. and for a regulated, evidence-based, supportive treatment and recovery system as important pillars in preventing future deaths."

The illicit drug toxicity death total of 170 for May 2020 surpasses the previous high of 161 reported in December 2016. British Columbia has recorded three consecutive months with over 100 illicit drug toxicity deaths.

"The number of people who we've lost - not this past month, but over the past four years - is unfathomable and heartbreaking," said Guy Felicella, peer clinical advisor with BC Centre on Substance Use and the provincial Overdose Emergency Response Centre.

"More British Columbians died of overdose in one month than died in the whole first wave of COVID-19. All British Columbians should collectively share our grief and urge action to improve access to safer supply so people can get the help they need."

There have been 554 illicit drug deaths to date in 2020 in British Columbia.

"These tragic deaths are a potent reminder that we must persevere with the many interventions in place and continue in our efforts to reduce harm and stigma, stop overdoses and care for people with addiction," said Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer in the release.

"The overdose crisis is taking a toll on families and communities across this province, and we know the second public health emergency of COVID-19 is adding additional challenges. There is no simple solution, but we remain committed to doing all we can to support people who use drugs, as well as their families, friends and loved ones."