Eight deaths linked to drug overdoses in the Greater Victoria area over the past week have prompted the B.C. Coroners Service to warn users to be extremely cautious in their use of illegal narcotics.
"If you absolutely have to do it, don't use alone. Make sure there's somebody with you who is with it enough to recognize if you get into trouble," spokesperson Barb McClintock said in an interview Sunday.
She also said users in groups need to call 911 immediately if they see peers who are in medical distress.
"Obviously, the best way to avoid the risk is not to use, and particularly not to use injection drugs."
The service is still reviewing data, awaiting toxicology reports and otherwise trying to refine the picture of what is going on, but raising the alarm over experienced drug users, aged from their early twenties to early sixties, who have died in homes, a tent city and a parkade in the Victoria area, says Ms. McClintock.
"We don't really know what's happening at this point. We're making all sorts of efforts to find out," she said. "A lot of this is still very preliminary."
She said the service is concerned. "Any cluster of deaths that appear to be preventable deaths, often deaths of younger people, is certainly concerning."
There is one confirmed overdose case based on toxicology results. "The other cases are suspected," said Ms. McClintock.
In the one confirmed case, toxicology analysis found a mixed cocktail of toxic levels of crystal meth, heroin, a low-level of cocaine and fentanyl in the individual last Sunday. The victim was a man found in a parkade.
However, she said the service is emphatically not linking the cases to one particular drug. She said the service does not want to leave the impression that simply avoiding fentanyl, 50 to 100 times more powerful than other opioids and which must be carefully monitored to prevent overdose, will guarantee safety.
All of the cases occurred between Dec. 20 and 26 – part of what Ms. McClintock described as an unusual "cluster" of concern to the service.
While such clusters have occurred elsewhere in B.C., Ms. McClintock said she could not recall a similar situation in the capital area.
"Obviously, we want to cut it off at the pass if we can conceivably do so," she said. "We don't want it to become a long-term trend."
She said the users are all experienced. "These are not naive drug users. These are experienced, regular users," she said, adding the expectation is that final data will show they were all injection drug users.
She said the service has been raising concerns with community partners, such as the health authority, street agencies and the Victoria Police, who are in regular contact with drug users.
"We are thinking they are the ones likely to get out the message that even more care than usual is needed," she said.
Dr. Paul Hasselback, medical health officer of Island Health's, issued a statement late Sunday saying, "We continue to see evidence that a batch of illicit drug product has contributed to overdoses in the South island area. This particular batch appears to include fentanyl along with other drugs." He urged illegal drug users to be cautious.