By Ashley Wadhwani and Tyler OlsenA total of 37 people died from illegal drug overdoses in Abbotsford in 2016, up from 27 the previous year. In 2014, the city recorded seven fatal drug overdoses.
The numbers are unprecedented not only in Abbotsford but across the province: 914 people lost their lives in B.C. last year after overdosing on illicit drugs.
That figure, released Wednesday by the BC Coroners Service, is nearly double the 510 overdose-related deaths from 2015 – and that 2015 number was itself a dramatic increase from the year before.
And the problem is only getting worse. December was the deadliest month of 2017, with 142 overdose deaths recorded.
Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said the exact percentage of overdoses that stem from fentanyl will be confirmed in March, as detection tests continue.
Not a single overdose death has occurred at a supervised consumption site or overdose prevention site, with Lapointe applauding the efforts of social agency workers, volunteers, and first responders.
These numbers would be much higher if not for them, she said, calling the year-end statistics “the tip of the iceberg.”
To try to contain the overdose epidemic, the province set up multiple supervised consumption sites and “overdose prevention sites” around the province last month.
On Wednesday, Health Minister Terry Lake pledged $16 million to expand a variety of recovery supports.
Of these new funds, $10 million will be used for 60 new intensive residential treatment beds (40 for adults, 20 for youth) and 50 intensive outpatient treatment spaces. Both will provide 90-day programs and a year of follow-up care through weekly group counselling and ongoing access to counsellors.
The new treatment spots are estimated to go to 240 people with opioid addictions.
Service agencies and police in Abbotsford have frequently spoken about delays between someone wanting to access help and when they are actually admitted to a treatment facility. The concern is that during that gap – which can stretch for weeks – users will change their mind or overdose.
The province will also provide 100-per-cent coverage for opioid substitution therapies to eligible British Columbians as of Feb. 1.
This coverage falls under PharmaCare’s Plan G psychiatric medications program, which provides no-cost coverage to those with lower incomes. Individuals who qualify for MSP premium assistance, or who have an annual income under about $42,000, would be considered eligible for no-cost buprenorphine/naloxone or methadone under this plan.
“We want to be able to provide treatment as quickly as possible,” Lake said. “But … we don’t have the resources to provide treatment on demand for all conditions.”
He called on the federal government to declare a federal health emergency because of the significant number of illicit drug deaths.
“We haven’t seen the response that I think this type of epidemic requires on a national scale.”
Roughly 80 per cent of overdose deaths occurred indoors, and Lapointe urged for those using drugs, to not use alone and keep naloxone kits close. The most deaths in one health authority occurred within the Fraser Health, with 301, but the scourge of fatal overdoses has spread across the province. Vancouver Coastal saw 253 deaths, Interior Health saw 156, Island Health saw 155 and the Northern Health Authority recorded 49. All five health authorities have similar per capita overdose rates.