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COVID-19 is not the 'longest public emergency in Canadian history': B.C. premier called out for 'tone deaf' message

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FILE - This undated file photo provided by the U.S. Attorneys Office for Utah and introduced as evidence at a trial shows fentanyl-laced fake oxycodone pills collected during an investigation. Accidental overdoses contribute to 90 percent of all U.S. opioid-related deaths. Rising use of illicitly manufactured and highly potent synthetic opioids including fentanyl has likely contributed to the unintentional death rate, which surged nine-fold between 2000 and 2017, the study found. (U.S. Attorneys Office for Utah via AP, File)

Advocates and experts working on the frontlines of British Columbia’s toxic drug death crisis were left in disbelief after the province’s premier appeared to entirely ignore the impacts of the overdose crisis during a press conference on June 29.

“After the longest public emergency in Canadian history, I believe it’s safe to take the next step forward,” Premier John Horgan said in his opening statements, while announcing stage three of the province’s COVID-19 reopening plan.

His classification of the pandemic as the ‘longest public emergency in Canadian history’ came on the same day that the B.C. Coroners Service released their monthly report on the number of people who have lost their lives to the drug poisoning crisis in the province — a crisis that was declared a public health emergency in B.C. over five years ago, in 2016.

According to this report, 851 people have died from drug overdose this year in B.C., 160 of whom lost their lives in the month of May alone. In comparison, about 103 people died of COVID-19 in the province during the same month.

“I was incredulous at how tone deaf that was,” said Leslie McBain, recalling her reaction to Horgan’s comments.

McBain co-founded Moms Stop the Harm—a group that advocates for compassionate harm reduction measures and an end to the failed war on drugs—in 2016, after losing her son to drug overdose in 2014. She is also the family engagement lead at the B.C. Centre on Substance Use.

McBain calls B.C.’s response to the overdose crisis ‘appalling’, adding that provincial leaders have expressed their intentions of bringing about an end to this public health emergency, but have not followed up their words with meaningful action.

“With the COVID response [it was] all hands on deck… it was a reasonably good response from the province and from the country,” McBain said. 

But for an epidemic of deaths [among] people who have used toxic drugs, there's been so little response. They should be embarrassed by this at the very least, but it seems as though there's just no urgency.Leslie McBain, co-founder Moms Stop the Harm

What needs to be done to curb overdose crisis

The response McBain would like to see includes policies that B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, herself has called for in the past, in a 2019 report entitled ‘Stopping the Harm’.

This report calls for the decriminalization of personal possession of illegal drugs—a step that is now being taken in cities like Vancouver.

However for McBain, the most important step the province can take to save lives is to implement a safe supply of pharmaceutical drugs, to replace a street supply that has grown increasingly toxic, particularly during the pandemic with border closures limiting imported drug supplies.

The B.C. Coroners Service’s latest report found that about a quarter of drug samples tested in April and May this year contained extreme concentrations of fentanyl—the highest rates reported since the beginning of 2019.

Fentanyl has been detected in about 85 per cent of overdose deaths in 2021 so far, compared to about five per cent in 2012.

“I think there will always be toxic drugs in the black market. I don’t think we can stop that,” McBain said. “But if the government—particularly the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions—were to actually show us action, there would be a change in the number of deaths and there would be treatment, and there would be all those things.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, public health leaders in B.C. held regular press conferences at least twice a week to answer questions and keep their constituents informed about the evolving nature of the pandemic.

For McBain, a similar initiative to tackle the overdose epidemic would go a long way towards raising awareness and humanizing the crisis.

“I hear the stories every day,” McBain said. “I talk to a lot of people who have lost loved ones or who have loved ones that are still struggling. So I know the pain that's out there. It's profound.”

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