Overdose deaths decrease in B.C. but officials say safer drug supply needed

Overdose deaths linked to illicit drugs dropped by 36 per cent last year in British Columbia compared with a year earlier, but the number of fatalities is about the same as when the province declared a provincial health emergency.

Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe says 981 people died of suspected overdoses in 2019.

She says that represents an average of 2.7 deaths a day and the number is likely to increase as investigations of last year’s deaths conclude.

Lapointe says more than 5,000 people have died in B.C. since 2016 when the health emergency was declared as fentanyl was increasingly detected in street drugs.

She says the BC Coroners Service is joining health officials in renewing calls for improved access to a regulated, safer drug supply in the province.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says the reduction in numbers last year indicates harm-reduction measures are making a difference.

Behind the numbers

Kelowna-based coroner Susan Barth is one of six provincial coroners who meticulously investigate and document each of these overdose deaths as part of the Drug Death Investigation Team. 

She said it is easy to get lost in the numbers and she never wants a family to feel like their loved one is just a number. 

“Whether it is a small business owner, or somebody who is marginalized on East Hastings, it doesn’t matter who it is, that life mattered,” Barth said Monday on CBC’s The Early Edition

Coroner Susan Barth, one of the province’s six-member Drug Death Investigation Team, says a safe supply is necessary to help prevent overdose deaths. (CBC/David French)

Barth referred to coroners as “last responder[s]” and said it’s amazing how many loved ones left behind tell her they are grateful for her support.

But that doesn’t make her work any easier.

“Regardless of the type of death you are investigating it does take a toll,” said Barth.

She remembers one in particular, in 2017, when she got a call from a grieving father who wanted to know what number his son was among the many who had overdosed that year.

She had to tell him his son was number 1,207 of 1,226.

“I’m lucky I have not lost somebody in this way,” she said, noting the dead she sees come from all walks of life and socio-economic backgrounds.

Barth would also like to see a clean supply of drugs made available to users so people are not at risk of dying from fentanyl.

“A safe supply is what we need. We used to do maybe two overdoses a month and this number is because the drug supply is poisoned.”

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