News / Vancouver

‘Little good news to share’ in B.C. fentanyl crisis: Chief coroner

Drug overdose death toll in B.C. hits 488 as government, health authorities and law enforcement agencies try to tackle the fentanyl public health emergency

A test provided at Vancouver's safe injection site allows users to check for the presence of fentanyl.

Wanyee Li/Metro File

A test provided at Vancouver's safe injection site allows users to check for the presence of fentanyl.

British Columbia Health Minister Terry Lake will take any small victory he can as the province continues to struggle containing a fentanyl overdose crisis.

The province announced Wednesday that 488 people have died of drug overdose so far this year (as of the end of August), a grim figure on pace to surpass 2015’s total of 505.

However, August was the first month during the crisis that the number of deaths have decreased over the same month last year.

Vancouver Coastal Health also reported that, at 78 deaths as of the end of July, it has at least managed to stabilize its overdose death rate so far in 2016 and has not seen an increase in deaths.

Those gains are being attributed largely to the distribution of take-home naloxone kits to drug users throughout B.C. and the harm reduction services available in Vancouver, such as Insite.

“We are somewhat cautiously optimistic,” Lake said of the officially declared provincial health emergency.

But Lake acknowledged the province still faces an uphill battle as government, health authorities and law enforcement agencies try to contain the epidemic.

Public Safety Minister Mike Morris said fentanyl – the toxic opioid present in the majority of B.C.’s overdose deaths -- has crept into nearly all street drugs sold on the streets and the province’s chief coroner, Lisa Lapointe, said the most common overdose fatalities involve cocaine users unaware the drug is laced with fentanyl.

Lake has written to the federal government to repeal a bill that significantly restricts health authorities’ ability to set up supervised injection sites, while Morris is lobbying for escalating criminal charges for the importation and sale of fentanyl, and making pill presses and other drug manufacturing equipment more difficult to obtain.

The province is also working with the federal government to delist naloxone so it can be made available at pharmacies to anyone who wants the life-saving kit (it’s currently only given to health professionals, first responders and drug users free of charge).

Despite the lower death toll in August, Lapointe said there is “little good news to share.”

“We still see fentanyl taking an exceptionally high toll,” she said.

Overdose response at a glance:

505 - Overdose deaths in 2015

488 - Overdose deaths in 2016 (end of August)

532 – Overdoses in Vancouver Coastal Health area, April 14 – Aug. 28

13,000 - Take home naloxone kits distributed in B.C.

2,100 - Naloxone kits used to reverse overdoses

162 – Overdoses Vancouver firefighters responded to in Sept. 1-14

51 – Overdoses reversed by Vancouver firefighters

66 – Locations to get naloxone kits in Lower Mainland