B.C. overdose death numbers are mild by U.S. standards
A look at the 2015 overdose numbers south of the Canadian border show that 44 0f 50 U.S. states—or 84.6 percent of the total—experienced higher rates of overdose deaths than British Columbia.
B.C.’s all-time high of 510 overdose deaths in 2015 worked out to 11.01 deaths per 100,000 British Columbians and ranked us 45th out of 51, when compared with U.S. states.
In 2015, the U.S. state with the least overdose deaths was Nebraska, with 6.9 deaths per 100,000 and the state with the most was West Virginia, with 41.5 overdose deaths per 100,000.
This is not to minimize the terrible tragedy of British Columbia’s fentanyl-driven drug overdose epidemic but to stress how much worse things could get if we do not act wisely and quickly.
We’ve already seen what sitting on our hands and not acting can do.
Between 2015 and 2016, drug overdose deaths in B.C. increased a staggering 79.2 percent—from the all-time high of 510 deaths to a new record of 914 deaths.
Province-wide in 2016, the overdose death rate was about 19.7 deaths per 100,000 (near the U.S/B.C.. median average in 2015).
In the city of Vancouver, however, where 215 of the 914 overdoses took place, the rate was more like 35 overdose deaths per 100,000.
The titanic problem of overdose deaths
Overdose deaths are like the tip of an iceberg. For every one of the 215 overdose deaths that took place in Vancouver in 2016, emergency services probably responded to—and saved the lives of—dozens of overdose victims.
This is what Vancouver’s Mayor Gregor Robertson is talking about when he refers to the strain that the fentanyl overdose crisis is putting on first responders—a mountain of many hundreds of overdose calls a month, with 35 overdose deaths per 100,000 at its summit.
Imagine if Vancouver was faced with the trebled 2015 overdose death rate of some West Virginia counties–like Wyoming County, which suffered 108 overdose deaths per 100,000, or McDowell County, with 131 overdose deaths per 100,000.
Imagine if—instead of 19.7 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents—British Columbia as a whole experienced West Virgina’s state-wide overdose death rate of 41.5 per 100,000.
Looking at the higher overdose death rates through much of the United States arguably shows us the possible future of the fentanyl overdose epidemic here in B.C. But as well, unpacking and understanding what’s behind individual state statistics may give us clues as to how to avert that terrible future.
What for example, accounts for the six states that enjoyed lower overdose death rates than B.C., including Texas? And what in the world is going on in the states with death rates in the 30s-and-above?
How significant is the fact that many of the worst hit states are small? Is it all about having the tax base to throw lots of money at the problem or is there a greater openness in the larger and more urbanized states to using evidence-based harm reduction strategies?
How did New York hold its death rate down to a comparatively low 13.6 per 100,000 and, more to the point why was the 2015 overdose death rate of California only 11.3 per 100,000—just one above B.C. After all, California had the population of Canada, as well as a thriving illicit opiod drug trade and it certainly didn’t have the benefit of even one safe injection site.
In fact, no U.S. state had a safe injection site in 2015.
We should probably therefore also ask ourselves what the death rate from overdoses would have been here in Vancouver, B.C. without the presence of the Insite safe injection site, where—since it opened in the Downtown Eastside 2003—thousands of overdoses have been safely reversed and not a single death has ever occurred. Click the image to enlarge it.