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B.C. overdose deaths show signs of levelling off, but coroner says risk still high

First responders attend a medical call in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in September, 2016.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The number of B.C. overdose deaths involving illicit drugs dropped slightly for the second straight month in February, but the coroner's service said the numbers are still much higher when compared with a year ago.

"While I'm very relieved to see that the numbers have not continued to increase over the last two months, we are still losing cherished members of our communities at a terrible rate," chief coroner Lisa Lapointe said in a news release on Friday.

"People are dying in far higher numbers than we've ever seen, and a slight decrease in fatalities from the previous month should not be seen as any indication that the risk has decreased."

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Provisional data from the coroner's service showed 102 people died in February, compared with 59 in February 2016, a 72.9 per cent increase. That amounts to an average of more than seven deaths every two days in February, the coroner said.

The number of deaths in February – the shortest month of the year – were down slightly from 117 in January. The province had 142 deaths from illicit drugs in December.

The report says fentanyl-detected deaths appear to account for the increase since 2012 because the number of illicit-drug overdose deaths where fentanyl was not involved has remained relatively stable over the past six years.

Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 28, the coroner reported a total of 219 illicit-drug overdose deaths, up from the 143 in the first two months of 2016.

Vancouver, Surrey and Kelowna reported the highest death rates for that period.

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The Vancouver Coastal Health Authority had 82 deaths, or 37.4 per cent of the provincial total. Fifty-nine overdose fatalities, or 26.9 per cent, occurred in the Fraser Health Authority, which includes Surrey.

The coroner said drug deaths climbed in the Vancouver Island and Northern Health authorities in February compared with one month earlier, while fatal illicit-drug overdoses in other health authorities dipped over the same period. There have been no deaths this year at supervised consumption or drug-overdose prevention sites, the latest report from the coroner said.

"This is evidence that these sites are saving lives," Ms. Lapointe of the coroner's service said. "People need to be encouraged to visit these sites as the majority of deaths are occurring when people use illicit substances without medical attention or assistance nearby."

The provincial government declared a public health emergency last spring when drug deaths, including those linked to the powerful opioid fentanyl, began to spike.

The coroner reported a record 922 deaths in 2016.

Video: How overdose fatalities in B.C. compare to other causes of death
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