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BC residents dying at a faster rate from illicit drugs than COVID-19: Chief Coroner

(Files by Brendan Pawliw – My Prince George Now)

56.5% of all drug overdose deaths in BC during July occurred among those between the ages of 30-49.

That’s according to the BC Coroners Service who reported 184 deaths province-wide for the month.

So far this year, 1,204 people have died from drug toxicity including 77 in Northern Health.

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In an interview with Vista Radio, Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe says people are dying at a much faster rate per day from illicit drugs than the coronavirus.

“Those dying from COVID tend to be much older. The average age of death is a person in their 80s’ while those dying of drug toxicity, the average age is 44, so we are losing expected years of life due to drug toxicity.”

“We are seeing five or six people regularly die every day from illicit drugs and we are not seeing five or six people die per day due to COVID-19 although people are at risk. We know both public health emergencies are critical and both are causing us to lose our loved ones.”

While 72% of all deaths from illicit drugs in BC this year are between the ages of 30-59, a good chunk of the province’s older or retirement population is also suffering.

According to the Coroners Service, 147 people between the ages of 60-69 have died from a suspected overdose so far this year – only 186 residents in this age bracket passed away from these substances in 2020.

“Sometimes we are seeing older people who have been abstinent for a number of years and returning to substance use for a number of reasons and we know the events of the last couple of years have been very, very stressful,” added Lapointe.

Fentanyl continues to be the most common drug found in BC when it comes to overdose deaths.

The substance has been found 87% of the time in completed cases between 2018 and this year.

Lapointe mentioned the lack of accessible treatment options is playing a role in the near record-breaking volume of fatalities.

“What we don’t have is an easy resource for people. We do not make it easy for people to find help and I think that is the real, real challenge we have in this province is that people are looking for help with their substance dependency and there is not an easy medical route.”

“What we don’t have is a system where people can seek help and have an active system of services available for them. So, where people are using substances alone or they don’t know where to turn or when they do ask for help, there is none available.”

Last week, Premier John Horgan promised more funding for the provinces depleted naloxone supply. It was reported several police agencies including those in Vancouver Island including Victoria have had to buy their own supply of the overdosing-reversing tool.

However, Lapointe isn’t pushing the panic button just yet on this new issue.

“My understanding is that naloxone will be supplied moving forward to anyone who needs it, be it police, firefighters, individual companies and the BC Centre for Disease Control is very committed to the take-home naloxone program.”

“It’s absolutely an essential part of a first responders tool kit. However, while we absolutely have to have naloxone we cannot rest on it as a panacea to this issue. Naloxone reverses overdoses and then we need to have supports available for people who are needing those services.”

The Chief Coroner has heard from many paramedics around BC that one dose of naloxone is often not enough to reverse an overdose – it usually takes five or six doses to accomplish this feat.

When looking at drug toxicity deaths by community, Prince George currently sits with 27 fatalities in 2021. That is on par with cities of similar size like Nanaimo (25), New Westminster (28) and Maple Ridge (25).

Over the last 19 months, Northern Health has seen 207 illicit drug deaths for an average of 11 per month. That is just as many as Victoria alone, which has 208 fatalities of this nature during this same time frame.

Since a public health emergency was declared in 2016, nearly 8-thousand British Columbians have lost their lives to illicit substances.

For more information on the BC Centre for Disease Control’s harm reduction services, you can access the Toward the Heart website.

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