B.C.’s top doc Bonnie Henry reflects on 3-year anniversary of opioid emergency

Just over three years ago, on April 14, 2016, B.C. declared a public health emergency due to the number of deaths caused by the opioid crisis. 

Since then, nearly 4,000 British Columbians have died from drug overdose deaths. 

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, spoke with CBC’s Mike Killeen in Victoria at The Harbour — an overdose prevention centre and supervised injection site — about the status of the province’s opioid crisis.

It’s been three years since a public health emergency was declared in this province. What has happened since?

In some ways, I despair that we are now three years in. But then we look back and we’ve made a lot of progress. The areas of mental health and addictions have been so neglected in this province, across the country, and really, globally, that we had a big hole to catch up and we are building systems now.

One of the reasons we declared the opioid emergency was to collect more information on the people who were overdosing and surviving to understand the problem better.

We do have a better understanding. We know that if we had not put in the measures that we have like these overdose prevention sites, supervised consumption, the naloxone program we have, that as many as 4,700 more people would have died which is frightening.

The good news is that [the number of deaths have] levelled off. The numbers last year were similar to 2017. When we look back though, we declared an emergency in 2016 when we were seeing 300, 400 people dying. And it has dramatically increased.

It really speaks to the complexity of the problems that we’re dealing with but also to the toxicity of the street drugs. That is really what is driving things here in B.C.

Are there any policy changes that have helped?

Things like naloxone were only available by prescription. We have been trying for years to get it available at least over the counter. Now it’s available free everywhere and it’s a very safe medication. We’ve used it for years. It’s very effective.

[This is not a legislated change but] one of the other really important things is we’ve been able to change the public discourse about people who use drugs and about addictions. People understand that these [people] are our community. It’s not just “those others.” 

This facility, the Harbour Centre in Victoria, has been opened for almost a year now. How is it going?

There are 200 people a day coming in and using the facilities and another 800 to 1,000 requests for harm-reduction supplies from the facility. 

They’ve had over 46,000 visits since it opened. There’s an average of three to four people a week who have overdosed at the facility. And like all of our facilities around the province, there have been no deaths associated with any of our supervised consumption sites or our overdose prevention sites.

That’s one of the important things for me. These are critical needs and they are working to keep people alive.

Going forward, might we see more facilities like this one?

Yes. Right now around the province, we have nine officially sanctioned supervised consumption service [sites]. And they’re very different models. We have mobile ones working in the Interior where there’s not such a concentration of people.

We’ve been really on the forefront of the world on how to do these in the way that meets the needs of different communities.

People are very focused that this is an ongoing problem and there is more that we need to do to continue to build those supports for people and those connections for people.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

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