Thirteen British Columbians died of illicit drug overdoses on Thursday, including nine in the City of Vancouver alone – the latest grim statistics in a worsening crisis that has emergency officials and Vancouver's mayor issuing an urgent call for more treatment options.
In comparison, the city has averaged about 15 fatal overdoses a month so far this year, with authorities investigating 160 deaths as of Nov. 30, according to the city's police chief.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and Chief Adam Palmer held a joint news conference Friday in which they lauded efforts to expand life-saving harm-reduction services such as supervised-injection sites, but said they also need the provincial government to invest in significant longer-term treatment options.
"We want better co-ordination and proper resourcing to ensure that detox and treatment help is available right away," Chief Palmer said. "We want a long-term health plan that does more than just revive people temporarily and sends them back into the streets to continue with their addiction. We want treatment on demand."
The police chief then told a story of Constable Linda Malcolm, a veteran police officer in the Downtown Eastside, recently being approached by a heroin user asking for help.
"She began looking for a detox facility; however, there was nothing available," Chief Palmer said.
"Officer Malcolm was told space would not be available for nine days. Nine days. You lose the window to help within hours. Nine days is an eternity."
Vancouver police said eight of Thursday's overdose deaths occurred in the Downtown Eastside. The BC Coroners Service has so far confirmed that there were at least six in the span of eight hours, but that another two in the same area and same time frame are suspected to be drug-related.
In the first 10 months of the year, 622 people died of illicit drug overdoses in B.C. That figure is already the highest annual death toll in 30 years of record-keeping, and it is expected to surpass 750 by year's end. Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, has been detected in 60 per cent of this year's deaths to date; carfentanil, an even more toxic opioid that has since been detected in four provinces, is suspected in another recent surge in overdoses.
November's numbers, to be announced on Monday, are expected to be particularly grim.
In a joint statement, B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake and Public Safety Minister Mike Morris highlighted the province's most recent efforts to address the crisis, such as establishing a mobile medical unit in the Downtown Eastside to respond to overdoses and opening a number of "overdose prevention sites."
"However, there is also significant work taking place on the longer-term solutions required to ensure we have a more co-ordinated and accessible system of care for addictions treatment," the statement said. This includes opening 500 substance-use beds by the end of March, despite them having been a provincial campaign promise nearly four years ago.
But there have been no set plans to expand these interventions despite B.C.'s top health officials having advocated for it.
There are an estimated 1,300 people in Vancouver who use illicit opioids, according to city officials.