B.C. reports highest-ever monthly total of illicit drug deaths in May 2020

Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General & BC Coroners Service

Press Release

Thursday, June 11 2020

The BC Coroners Service has published updated reports on illicit drug toxicity deaths and fentanyl-detected drug deaths to the end of May 2020.

The 170 illicit drug toxicity deaths reported in May mark the highest monthly total ever in British Columbia.

"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. "Despite the many collective efforts directed at this crisis, the toxic drug supply continues to take the lives of our family members, friends and colleagues.

"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.


Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, released the following statement about the BC Coroners Service report on monthly illicit drug toxicity deaths for May 2020:

"Last month, a staggering 170 people lost their lives because of an illegal drug supply that's more toxic and poisoned than ever. This is truly devastating to all of us. The impact of this tremendous loss is felt in communities and families in every corner of our province and in deeply profound ways. Each person was a light to the people in their world and now that light has tragically gone out. We mourn with each and every family of those we have lost to this terrible crisis.

"Before COVID-19, there was so much more to do, but we were heading in the right direction. The overdose death rate was coming down in B.C., and the evidence told us that our collective efforts were making a difference. The rapid scale up and distribution of naloxone and increased access to overdose prevention services (OPS) and treatment showed, through the BC Centre for Disease Control, that we had averted more than 6,000 deaths since the crisis began.

"Yet, with the immense pressure of two public health emergencies, so many unprecedented factors are bearing down swiftly on us all at once. Borders are closed and the usual illegal supply chains are disrupted, leading to drugs that are more toxic than ever. Unemployment, social isolation, declining mental health and increased alcohol and substance use are also the reality for so many right now.

"In the past three months, we have taken significant steps to begin separating people from the even more poisoned and toxic drug supply and protect people who are using alone. By providing safe prescription alternatives, we are saving lives and connecting people to more treatment and health supports.

"Next week, we are launching a 24/7 helpline for prescribers and pharmacists that will provide live, in-the-moment support to doctors, pharmacists and nurse practitioners while they are treating patients with opioid use disorder and considering prescribing safe prescription alternatives to the toxic drug supply.

"We've supported overdose prevention and supervised consumption sites to remain open under new COVID-19 protocols. We have launched the new Lifeguard app to help protect people who are having to use alone right now.

"We are continuing to redouble our efforts, but we need all British Columbians to join us to protect our loved ones at risk of overdose. When it comes to COVID-19, we've seen what a difference that each of us has made, coming together to do our part. Now more than ever, as we face two unprecedented public health emergencies, we must harness our collective efforts, our compassion and resolve, so that families don't have to keep suffering unimaginable and preventable losses.

"Today I am appealing to anyone who is reading this message. If you use illicit drugs, those drugs are incredibly toxic and even more poisoned than before. I am asking each of you to have a plan. Buddy up so you're not using poisoned drugs alone. Use the Lifeguard app - it will signal for help if you need it. Continue to visit OPS and supervised consumption services sites. They are open and are essential services in B.C.

"Carry naloxone. You can pick up your kit free at any pharmacy. Know the signs of an overdose so someone can call 911 to get help right away.

"Addictions and substance use challenges are very complex, with underlying social, economic and personal factors. Not everyone is on the same path, but everyone needs our compassion and a chance to live and to thrive.

"I am deeply grateful to each and every person who puts their blood, sweat and tears into helping and caring for people at risk of overdose. This has been a long and painful road. I know how unbearable these losses are for you and I am immensely grateful for your heroic efforts under very challenging circumstances.

"Let's talk about how to stay safe. Let's look out for one another. Let's take care of each other. Let's come together as a province to save lives from overdose."

"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. "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."

Post-mortem toxicology testing data published in this most recent report suggest an increase in the number of cases with extreme fentanyl concentrations in April and May 2020 compared with previous months.

Dr. Jane Buxton, harm reduction lead for the BC Centre for Disease Control said, "The drug supply is unpredictable and highly toxic, and has led to a sustained increase in fatal and non-fatal overdoses from smoking and injection in recent months. COVID-19 has added challenges and people may be feeling more isolated and anxious, but it's important to continue to buddy up, or access local overdose prevention and supervised consumption services during this time."