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160 people fatally overdosed in May in B.C. as drug toxicity keeps rising

60% of tests in May were positive for benzodiazepines, which cause challenges for first responders
Paramedics from B.C. Ambulance respond to a drug overdose in downtown Vancouver, Wednesday, June 23, 2021. Over the past several years the drug overdoses not only across British Columbia but throughout Canada have but grown. On June, 23, 2021 for instance B.C. Ambulance paramedics responded to 140 overdose calls across the province with 42 of those being just in Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Another 160 people lost their lives in May to B.C.’s overdose crisis.

Data for May was released by the BC Coroners Service Tuesday (June 29) morning, marking the 13th consecutive month of more than 150 deaths. The number fatalities in May works out to 5.2 people dying each day.

The deaths in May bring total fatalities for 2021 up to 851, the highest ever recorded in the first five months of a year.

Toxicological results show that 27 per cent of samples in April and 25 per cent of those tested in May contained extreme concentrations – more than 50 micrograms per litre – of fentanyl, the highest rates reported since the start of at least 2019.

Carfentanil, a more potent analogue of fentanyl, has now been detected in 75 deaths in 2021, compared to 65 in the whole of 2020. Sixty per cent of results returned in May also detected benzodiazepines, which do not respond to naloxone.

Fentanyl has been detected in 85 per cent of deaths this year, although the results are preliminary and may change. Overall, the percentage of illicit drug deaths with fentanyl detected has risen from five per cent in 2012 to 86 per cent in 2020.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic begins to wind down, we must turn our attention to combating B.C.’s other public health emergency with the same sense of urgency,” said chief coroner Lisa Lapointe. “We need to ensure that safe alternatives to toxic illicit drugs are available throughout the province, and that we are taking meaningful steps to reduce stigma and offer substance users access to the supports they need and are seeking.”

READ MORE: NDP lawmaker tables bill to decriminalize drug use as overdose deaths soar

The majority of fatal overdoses continue to take place indoors, with 55.6 per cent happening in private residences while 26.8 per cent happen in other residences in 2021. About 13.9 per cent take place outdoors.

Men continue to die at a much higher rate than women; in 2021, 80 per cent of fatal overdoses were men, while 20 per cent were women.

Vancouver has seen the most overdose deaths so far this year with 199, with Surrey having 108 and Victoria with 65. Fraser Health had the highest number of illicit drug deaths with 291, with Vancouver Coastal Health having 233 and Island Health having 139.

However, Northern Health had the highest rate of deaths at 48.1 per 100,000, with Vancouver Coastal Health next at 45.7 per 100,000. Fraser Health had the lowest at 35.5 per 100,000.

In a statement, Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson offered her “deepest condolences” to the loved ones of those who lost their lives.

“”With more than five people dying each day in British Columbia due to poisoned, unpredictable drugs, it’s especially important to understand that toxic drugs are circulating, and people should take every precaution when they use. More people are dying from smoking and/or inhaling drugs than from injecting them,” Malcolmson said.

“People who use drugs recreationally and regularly are all at high risk. If you plan to use - whether at home, at a party or event, know how to stay safer - this can mean the difference between life and death.”

Malcomson urged people not to use alone and to download the Lifeguard app if they are using drugs.

READ MORE: ‘Lifeguard’ app launches as a made-in-B.C. solution to help prevent overdose deaths


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