June was a record-setting month, as the BC Coroners Service is reporting that there were 175 illicit drug toxicity deaths.

“For the second month in a row, this province has experienced the highest number of deaths ever as a result of illicit substances with 175 lives lost, leaving behind grief and frustration while this public health emergency carries on into its fifth year,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner, BC Coroners Service. “We know the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people who use drugs, as it has all British Columbians. Access to key harm reduction services has been a challenge and our social networks are smaller.

To put it in perspective, the Coronavirus pandemic has resulted in 189 deaths over the course of four months, a far cry from the 728 illicit drug deaths recorded in the first six months of 2020.

“I also want to note the Province’s new risk mitigation guidance in the context of dual public health emergencies and encourage clinicians to support those who are at risk of overdose because of the toxic drug supply. The risks of the illicit market are unmanageable, and access to safe supply for those with this medical condition is essential to save lives. We are monitoring for the presence of hydromorphone in post-mortem toxicity results and have seen no evidence of a link between increased prescriptions and the increase in deaths. It is clear this is not just an opioid epidemic, with cocaine and methamphetamine/amphetamine detected in many drug deaths we investigate. However, we do know that illicit fentanyl remains the most significant driver in the tragic number of deaths our communities are experiencing.”

The report indicated that post-mortem toxicology testing data found that the number of cases with extreme fentanyl concentrations has increased in April, May, and June.

Extreme fentanyl concentrations exceed 50 micrograms per litre.

“Today’s report clearly shows us that the tragedy of overdose deaths from the toxic street drug supply in B.C. continues to escalate. While much effort has been made to reduce harm, remove stigma and provide the care that people living with addiction need, the impacts of the pandemic have made the situation dire for too many,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer. “We remain focused on this critical work and will not let up. For the families who have lost loved ones, please know we too feel your loss. These are our brothers and sisters, our neighbours, our community members. All of us must reach out and let people who use drugs know they are not alone and there is help.”

Another key finding is that the number of deaths in each of the five health authorities in the province is at or near the highest monthly totals ever recorded.