Fifty people have died of drug overdoses in the cities of Trail, Castlegar and Nelson since 2010.
Preliminary data on suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths provided to Black Press by the BC Coroners Service show 16 people in the Trail local health area have died in the past 10 years, and another 15 have died in the Castlegar area.
In the Nelson local health area, which includes Ymir and Salmo, 19 people died of overdoses between 2010 and May 31, 2020.
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 they 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 across B.C. between Jan. 1, 2016 and May 31, 2020.
In the local health area for Trail, which includes Rossland through to the Beaver Valley, 2017 was the most deadly year in the past decade with five overdose fatalities on record.
Last year saw three deaths due to illicit drugs, two are on record for 2018, two in 2016, and one in 2011, 2012, 2014.
To date this year, one person in the Trail area has died of a drug-related overdose.
In early 2018, the City of Trail formed an advocacy group called the Community Safety Task Force and one of its mandates is to delve into the complex issues of mental health and addictions.
Prior to COVID-19, workers of frontline agencies would gather every few months to collaborate and educate one another about resources that are out there, and where cracks exist.
Sadly, the pandemic has put up barriers to certain measures presently in place to help those struggling with addiction.
Across the province, this has resulted in a spike of overdoses since coronavirus landed in B.C. earlier this year.
In fact, 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.
While there is not a breakdown of drugs contributing to these deaths, there is one particular opioid often the root cause.
“I can tell you that B.C. is facing a highly toxic drug supply with the majority of the deaths we investigate having fentanyl detected in the post-mortem testing,” Andy Watson, spokesperson with the BC Coroners Service, told Black Press.
“In April and May, post-mortem toxicology results suggest that there has been a greater number of cases with extreme fentanyl concentrations in May compared with previous months,” he explained.
“From April to May 2020, approximately 19 per cent of cases had extreme fentanyl concentrations as compared to 9 per cent from January 2019 to March 2020.
“Really, we started to see fentanyl in the system first in a significant way toward the middle part of 2014 – with the biggest surge at the end of 2015 – into where we are today,” he said.
“Initially that was mainly on the coast, and then moved into the Interior and northern parts of our province.”
In the month of May, 170 people died from fatal overdoses in B.C. – or 11 people every two days – marking the highest number of deaths in a single month since the crisis was declared in 2016.
This followed 118 illicit drug deaths in April, preceded by 113 overdose fatalities in March.
The spike in drug-related deaths parallels social distancing restrictions due to COVID-19, which has pushed drug users indoors. The latest stats show 85 per cent of deaths have occurred indoors.
“More British Columbians died of overdose in one month than died in the whole first wave of COVID-19,” Guy Felicella, a peer clinical supervisor with the BC Centre for Substance Use, said June 11.
“All British Columbians should collectively share our grief and urge action to improve access to safer supply so people can get the help they need.”
In the past year, Greater Trail RCMP Sgt. Mike Wicentowich has often reported on police seizing a “small amount of narcotics” incidental to traffic stops, for example.
Those seizures often involve fentanyl, and illustrate just how critical it is for police to get the opioid off the streets, no matter the quantity.
That’s because, to put fentanyl usage into context, the drug sells between $40 and $60 per individual dose on the street. Moreover, an individual dose is only 0.5 grams or one-tenth (0.1) of a teaspoon.
Due to its high potency in small concentrations, this very tiny amount can be fatal.
Frontline agencies are now encouraging users to download a new app designed to prevent overdoses in isolation.
The Lifeguard app, free to B.C. residents since 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, which is when it contacts 911 about a potential overdose with the user’s location.
– With files from Tyler Harper and Ashley Wadhwani