Overdose calls spiked throughout B.C., in 2020. (BCEHS photo illustration)

Stigma, isolation, inadequate services blamed for highest opioid death rate in B.C.’s north

Illicit drug overdose deaths in Northern Health equalled 46 deaths per 100,000 population

By Fran Yanor, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Rocky Mountain Goat

Last year, for the first time, Northern BC earned the tragic distinction of having the highest rate of illicit drug deaths in the province.

Experts cited rural isolation, stigma, a toxic drug supply and inadequate treatment services as causes.

While it’s tough to pinpoint the exact causes in a given community, there are certain factors that stand out, B.C.’s Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe said in an interview on Feb. 11.

“It is often a consequence of services,” Lapointe said. “What is available in terms of supports for people who are experiencing problematic substances? Are there overdose prevention sites available? Is naloxone widely available?”

RELATED: Pandemic aggravates opioid crisis as overdoses rise and services fall out of reach

RELATED: With 1,716 deaths, 2020 deadliest year of overdose crisis in B.C. history

Of the 32 overdose prevention and supervised consumption sites in the province, only one is located in Northern Health.

The lone overdose prevention site in Prince George helps people with addictions and other health issues, and in 2020, got 3,583 visits from January to November of 2020, according the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC).

By comparison, six sites in Interior Health received 4,902 visits during the same time frame.

“Harm reduction measures are a key part to keep people alive, but so is access to safe supply so we’re not forcing people to go to the illicit, for-profit drug market,” said Lapointe.

COVID-19 disrupted the illicit drug supply and local drug makers have filled the gap with a variety of toxic alternatives. From 2017 to 2020, illicit fentanyl, 50 times or more stronger than heroin, was found in nearly 87 per cent of the overdose deaths. Cocaine and methamphetamine were second most prevalent.People are at the whim of an unpredictable, unregulated market, said Lapointe.

To provide safe supply, 10 Opioid Agonist Treatment (OAT) clinics in Northern Health offer a range of services including prescribed medications to manage cravings or ease opioid withdrawal, and access to naloxone, which can reverse an opioid overdose. Some health practitioners also prescribe OAT medications which help support people to engage in recovery.

“When people are stabilized and looking for recovery and treatment options, those need to be available,” said Lapointe, adding that treatment also needs to be financially and geographically accessible in communities with the biggest “burden of overdose.”

“There’s a lack of resources, a lack of supports for people who are wanting to get assistance or help,” said Maureen Davis, executive director of the northern BC chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association. “There’s always extensive wait periods.”

Last week, the provincial government announced funding for 100 new treatment beds in the province, including 12 in Kamloops. None were located in Prince George or the Robson Valley area.

“Systemically, we’re not set up really well for treatment,” Davis said, who has worked on the mental health front lines in Prince George for 30 years. “We really don’t have treatment centers here, so you’re waiting to be sent somewhere, and lots of times people fall apart.”

In 2020, 1,716 British Columbians died from an illicit drug overdose, including 132 people in Northern Health, which equalled 46 deaths per 100,000 population, the highest in B.C. The provincial rate was 33 per 100,000.

Living in the north is just harder, she said Davis. “And COVID is making all the isolation that is often a part of living in northern and rural communities, and (worsening) it even more.”

From 2018 through 2020, Prince George (including the Robson Valley) lost 142 people to illicit drug overdoses 144 people from Kamloops died, and five people from North Thompson, including Clearwater, Vavenby, and Blue River, lost their lives.

“What’s most worrying to me is that we’re a year into COVID and we’re still seeing such high numbers all across B.C.,” said Dr. Rakel Kling, northern interior medical officer for Northern Health.

“It can happen to anyone, in any age group, in any family, in any community,” said Kling, and the pandemic has increased the risks. “People are using drugs alone and overdosing alone.”

Discrimination is another factor in overdoses, Kling said. “Everywhere in all of our communities, stigma is a huge problem. There’s a lot of unwillingness to have support available for people who use drugs or have them located in certain areas.”

Some communities have taken a stigmatizing, almost a shame-based, approach, Lapointe said. “In those situations, people are fearful of coming forward, they don’t want to divulge their drug use, they’re fearful of losing their jobs, of the shame associated with it.”

It’s difficult to know the scope of the problem, said Dannielle Alan, Robson Valley-Canoe director for the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George. “Here, it’s very much under the radar.”

Some people may leave the community for drugs or treatment since both are more accessible in larger cities, she said. Alan thinks McBride should host a treatment facility.

“Across British Columbia, we don’t have the services people need,” Alan said. “Rather than put them in the middle of a city where they’re surrounded by the same lifestyle, take them out of that completely put them in a healthy (mountain) environment.”

fran↕thegoatnews / ↕FranYanor

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

RCMP are searching for Philip Toner, who is a 'person of interest' in the investigation of a suspicious death in Kootenay National Park last week. Photo courtesy BC RCMP.
Man sought in suspicious Kootenay death found in Lake Country

Philip Toner is a person of interest in the death of Brenda Ware

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
65 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

Overall, B.C. is seeing a decrease in COVID-19 cases

RCMP are searching for Philip Toner, who is a ‘person of interest’ in the investigation of a suspicious death in Kootenay National Park last week. Photo courtesy BC RCMP.
RCMP identify ‘person of interest’ in Kootenay National Park suspicious death

Police are looking for Philip Toner, who was known to a woman found dead near Radium last week

FILE - In this April 19, 2021, file photo, Keidy Ventura, 17, receives her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in West New York, N.J. States across the country are dramatically scaling back their COVID-19 vaccine orders as interest in the shots wanes, putting the goal of herd immunity further out of reach. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
5 more deaths, 131 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health over the weekend

Those 18-years and older in high-transmission neighbourhoods can register for the vaccine

F.W. Green Memorial Home in Cranbrook. Photo courtesy Google Streetview.
Plan for future expansion of F.W. Green Home taking shape

Capital projects underway at East Kootenay Regional Hospital, per update from Interior Health

A bullet hole is seen in the windshield of an RCMP vehicle approximately 4 km from Vancouver International Airport after a one person was killed during a shooting outside the international departures terminal at the airport, in Richmond, B.C., Sunday, May 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Homicide team IDs man in fatal YVR shooting as police grapple with spate of gang violence

Man, 20, charged in separate fatal shooting Burnaby over the weekend

Keith MacIntyre - BC Libertarian
Penticton’s Keith MacIntyre new leader of the B.C. Libertarian Party

The Penticton businessman was voted in by members of the party on May 8

Vernon North Okanagan RCMP reported to 287 mental health calls between Jan. 1, 2021, and May 1. (Black Press files)
‘It’s not the police’s responsibility to deal with mental health calls’: Vernon RCMP

RCMP remind public to take care of mental health and well-being, while better solutions are sought

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Thompson Rivers University campus is in Kamloops, B.C. (KTW file photo)
Thompson Rivers the 1st B.C. university to supply free menstrual products

The university will offer the products this September

Fraser Health is using ‘targeted’ vaccination clinics in high-risk areas of the Lower Mainland. (Fraser Health photo)
B.C.’s COVID-19 decrease continues, 515 new cases Tuesday

426 seriously ill people in hospital, up from 415 Monday

The site of Sunfest, Laketown Ranch, will be open for camping this summer. (Citizen file)
Sunfest country music bash won’t be shining on B.C. in 2021

Annual Vancouver Island Festival cancelled due to COVID-19, along with Laketown Shakedown

Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation elected chief councillor Moses Martin, who was also Chantel Moore’s grandfather, speaks to media in Port Alberni on Aug. 16, 2020, during a visit from NDP leader Jagmeet Singh following the police shooting of Chantel Moore. (Elena Rardon photo)
Mother of 2 shot by police in critical condition, says B.C. First Nation chief

Community ‘devastated’ by third member of 1,150-person Vancouver Island nation shot in less than a year

B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham promotes the government’s BuyBC food program in 2019. (B.C. government)
Money running out for fresh fruit, vegetables, milk in B.C. schools

‘Looking at ways to support this type of program,’ minister says

Most Read