Fifty people have died due to overdoses in the Nelson, Castlegar and Trail areas since 2010.
Preliminary data on suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths provided to Black Press by the BC Coroners Service show 19 people in the Nelson local health area, which includes Ymir and Salmo, died between 2010 and May 31, 2020.
Trail has had 16 fatalities while 15 people have also died in the Castlegar area.
The Coroners Service has previously declined to make such statistics by township and month public, citing privacy concerns in regions with smaller populations.
But following a report released June 11 in which the Coroners Service summarized illicit drug deaths in B.C. over the previous decade , Black Press requested local stats. The service in turn provided annual data by local health authority that meets the provincial small numbers policy criteria.
What the numbers show is a rise in deaths corresponding with the start of the provincial opioid crisis, which began to spike in 2016. There were 5,565 overdose deaths in B.C. between Jan. 1, 2016 to May 31, 2020.
In the Nelson area, there were six recorded overdose deaths between 2010 and 2015. But in 2016 alone there were five, followed by four in 2017, two in 2018 and two in 2019. There have also already been three through May 31 this year. Nelson Police have also said they believe a woman’s death on June 4 was due to an overdose.
ANKORS drug checking project co-ordinator Chloe Sage said a combination of increased harm reduction services, overdose prevention sites and easier access to naloxone led to fewer deaths in 2018 and 2019.
But this year, with the province locked down by COVID-19, Sage said deaths are rising due to physical isolation and closed services.
“All the work we did to get to where we were in 2018, 2019, a lot of that got removed by the isolation people were dealing with unfortunately,” she said.
Sage’s observation is backed by provincial stats that show a deepening opioid crisis.
B.C. paramedics responded to 131 overdoses on June 26, the most ever recorded in a single day and double the daily average. Fatal overdoses were also up 93 per cent among Indigenous peoples during the first five months of 2020.
Sage is the point person behind ANKORS’ free drug checking service. She said she’s found drug mixes to be inconsistent this year. There’s less cocaine in what users believe to be cocaine, for example. She’s also found benzodiazepine, a type of tranquilizer, in fentanyl samples.
What that means is less certainty among users of what they are taking, and because of the pandemic there are also fewer people nearby to keep watch if something goes wrong.
“A lot of people have been dying alone because they just haven’t had access to people to witness,” said Sage. “That isolation is such a huge factor.”
In Castlegar, which had its worse year for deaths in 2019 with four fatalities, the local food bank has begun handing out harm reduction items like pipes and foil to make up for a lack of services in the city.
Deb McIntosh, a former city councillor who runs the Castlegar Community Harvest Food Bank and emergency drop-in shelter, said the food bank had already been providing naloxone out of necessity.
“It’s not within our mandate and it’s not what we do but my god it’s needed, you know? So it’s just something that’s infuriating to me,” she said.
“It makes me so angry and so sad at the same time that people can’t get the services they need.”
McIntosh agreed with Sage that the pandemic has worsened, and overshadowed, the opioid crisis. She also said community members should avoid downplaying the number of local deaths compared to more populated areas.
“The fact remains that those four people in 2019 were somebody’s family members. Those statistics mean nothing when it’s your family member. It doesn’t matter if it’s four, it doesn’t matter if it is 400.”
Sage said she’s currently encouraging users to download a new app designed to prevent overdoses in isolation.
The Lifeguard app, which was made available for free to B.C. residents in May, can be downloaded to both Apple and Android phones.
It’s activated by users before they use, which prompts a 50-second timer. Once that timer goes off, the app sounds an alarm that the user has to press a button to stop. If they don’t respond, the alarm grows louder until after 75 seconds it contacts 911 about a potential overdose with the user’s location.
“A lot of people in drug user groups throughout the pandemic have actually started their own witnessing programs over the phone, doing this for each other,” said Sage.
“This is a more formal app to build on the work those folks have been doing for each other already, and it’s really awesome because if people are alone someone can be watching out for them.”
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