Minister’s statement on BC Coroners Service report on illicit drug toxicity deaths

Press Release

Aug. 25, 2020

VICTORIA – Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, has released the following statement regarding the BC Coroners Service’s monthly report on illicit drug toxicity deaths for July 2020:

“COVID-19 measures continue to have devastating, unintended consequences for people who use substances. A heart-wrenching 175 people lost their lives in July due to an illegal drug supply that is more toxic than it has ever been in B.C. These were treasured friends, neighbours, partners, parents and children. The vast majority were men between the ages of 19 and 49. Some were fathers. They were people from all walks of life who cared deeply about their families and the people they loved.

“Prior to COVID-19, overdose deaths were coming down in B.C. for the first time since 2012. Several years of efforts to save lives were making a difference. Last year, analysis from the BC Centre for Disease Control estimated that nearly 6,000 deaths have been averted since April 2016, thanks to the life-saving supports that are in place here, including scaling up the distribution of naloxone, the establishment of more overdose preventions sites and improved access to medication-assisted treatment. But these efforts have strained against the challenges of COVID-19.

“Social isolation, disconnection from community and in-person supports, financial pressures, growing mental health challenges, and a drug supply that is becoming more and more toxic, have all contributed to an increase in substance use and increased risk. B.C. is not alone. The impacts of a toxic drug supply are being felt across Canada. From March to July, suspected overdose deaths jumped 85% in Toronto over the same period in 2019. In Montreal, July had the highest number of deaths recorded in one month since 2014. In the Yukon, overdose deaths so far in 2020 are double that of all 2019. And in Alberta, there were 60 overdose deaths in March, compared to 39 in February of this year. So many valued lives have gone far, far too soon.

“We have been working flat-out to reduce overdose deaths since we formed government. Since COVID-19 hit, we have escalated our response to counter the effects of the pandemic and to get more people on a path to treatment and recovery. Since March, we have introduced new guidance to give people access to a safe supply of prescription medications, doubled the number of youth treatment beds in the province, invested $10.5 million to increase the number of overdose prevention sites (including inhalation sites and supplies), provided more outreach teams, enabled registered nurses to help implement the safe supply guidance, invested $16 million in the creation of more bed-based treatment and recovery services, partnered with the federal government to support innovative harm reduction programs and supported or enhanced 16 substance-use integrated teams to make sure that people who connect with the health-care system stay connected.

“We know there is more work to do, and we could not do it without the continued heroic efforts of the frontline workers, peer support workers and first responders who pour their hearts and souls into saving lives, day in and day out.

“British Columbians showed the world what we could do when it came to COVID-19. We joined together, we took care of one another and we kept people safe. We must do the same for the overdose public health emergency in this province and we must do it now.”

A backgrounder follows.


Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions
250 213-7049


Overdose response actions

Enhancing treatment and recovery

Double the number of youth treatment beds: $36 million until 2023, for 123 new substance-use treatment and withdrawal management beds for youth (aged 12 to 24 years). Locations are being determined in consultation with regional health authorities and based on greatest need.

New beds for addictions and recovery care: $16 million for 50 to 70 new treatment and recovery beds and to support existing services that have been challenged by COVID-19.

Better, safer care in supportive recovery: More government oversight, expanded training for staff and higher per diem rates for people on income assistance in supportive recovery.

Expanded opioid agonist treatment: The number of patients dispensed opioid agonist treatment (OAT) had grown to 22,932 as of June 2020. The number of clinicians prescribing any form of opioid agonist treatment in a given month increased from 773 in June 2017 to 1,536 in June 2020. Government has also significantly expanded access through Rapid Access to Addictions Care Clinics in all health regions (42 new patients per week with 2,500 referred to community for ongoing care) so that more people can access the care they need, where and when they need it.

More flexible treatment options: There are more options than ever – including injectable opioid agonist treatment (across eight sites in B.C.), low-barrier pharmaceutical alternate programs (increasingly available at some supervised consumption services so people can get directly connected to treatment; expanding to 335 patients in Vancouver, the Interior and Fraser Health).

$40 million provided to upgrade First Nations-run treatment centres: Throughout B.C., plans call for eight projects: two new facilities and six replacement facilities in coming years.

Improving the substance use system of care

New substance-use teams to keep people connected to services and treatment: Seven new and nine expanded substance-use teams throughout the province to help people stay connected to health-care services, treatment and recovery.

Emergency room connections: Improving access to evidence-informed care, including access to Suboxone.

Emergency health services pilot project: Through a partnership with BC Emergency Health Services, more people who are not already connected to care are being provided with referrals and ongoing support if they decline transport to hospital following an overdose.

Significant expansion of mental health and addictions counselling: Through community counselling grants.

Responding to an even more toxic drug supply

New prescriber guidance: In March 2020, new guidance for prescribers and pharmacists was released to keep people with substance-use disorder separated from the toxic drug supply and to protect them from withdrawal and other harms during COVID-19. The program has trained more doctors, nurse practitioners and pharmacists on how to prescribe safe alternatives to the toxic drug supply: 3,018 people have attended webinars for prescribers on how to use the new guidance to support people.

There has been a 222% increase (from 677 to 2,181 people) in the number of people dispensed hydromorphone in July 2020 compared to March 2020. Dispensations have occurred in every health authority region in the province. Pharmaceutical options give patients the opportunity to stabilize and take the steps necessary to find a pathway to treatment and avoid accessing the highly toxic and unpredictable toxic drug supply.

A new 24/7 helpline for prescribers and pharmacists: Provides live, in-the-moment support to doctors, pharmacists and nurse practitioners while they are treating patients with opioid-use disorder and considering safe prescription alternatives to the toxic drug supply.

Keeping people safe at home

$10.5 million to further accelerate the response to an increasingly toxic illicit drug supply due to COVID-19: The funding will scale up overdose prevention services (17 new safe consumption sites and 12 new inhalation services), expand access (42 new full-time nurses, social workers and peer support workers) to safe prescription alternatives to separate people from toxic street drugs and add new outreach teams to help prevent overdose deaths, save lives and connect more people to treatment and recovery throughout the province.

New lifeguard app: The free app helps to save lives by connecting people who use substances automatically to first responders if they become unresponsive. Since its launch in late May 2020, more than 1,500 people have used the app. It has helped first responders save lives.

Overdose prevention and supervised consumption services: During COVID-19, these sites have been declared essential services. Government has supported the sites to stay open with new COVID-19 measures to help give people the confidence that they can continue to use these services safely during the pandemic. Since their inception, these 32 locations have played a crucial role in connecting people to treatment and have had more than 1.8 million visits, more than 9,933 overdoses responded to and survived, and zero deaths.

Take-home naloxone kits: Available at 1,738 locations, including more than 732 pharmacies in B.C. In 2019, 204,740 kits were shipped and 63,807 have been reported as used to reverse an overdose.

Federal funding for safer supply projects in the Cowichan Valley: $2 million in funding for a pilot project within Island Health. The innovative project will provide pharmaceutical-grade medication as an alternative to the toxic illegal drug supply for people in Cowichan Valley who have not responded to other forms of treatment for opioid-use disorder.

Community response

Grants totalling $1.6 million: These grants will be provided to escalate the overdose response in rural and Indigenous communities and to provide supports including groups for grief and loss, family services and networks for people and families affected by the overdose crisis.

People with lived/living experience: Continued investments to ensure people with lived and living experience are involved in service delivery, policy and program development.

Facility Overdose Response Box program: Provides community organizations with naloxone, supplies and training so staff can recognize and respond to overdose. There are 625 registered sites in the province.

Indigenous-led solutions

$40 million provided to upgrade First Nations-run treatment centres: Throughout B.C., plans call for eight projects – two new facilities and six replacement facilities in coming years.

Land-based healing: $23 million for crucial, land-based cultural programs that support healing from trauma and strengthen resiliency.

$44 million to the First Nations Health Authority: To support the overdose emergency response as it relates to First Nations communities.


Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions
250 213-7049

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