Three people linked to Hope died of suspected drug overdoses in March, Hope RCMP’s Staff Sergeant Karol Rehdner confirmed.
Rehdner said it is not possible to know what substances they may have ingested or whether it may have been linked to a specific batch of drugs entering the community.
“It could have been meth, it could have been fentanyl, I don’t know,” he said. “That said, there were three people that passed away that had a tie to Hope. So that’s enough to raise a red flag.”
The BC Coroners Service has confirmed that one person died March 21 and a second person March 25 in Hope. The Coroners Service stated they are in the early stages of a fact-finding investigation to “determine, how, where, when and by what means the individuals died.” It would be premature, the service stated, for them to speculate on the cause of death during an open investigation.
Rehdner said a third person died in Chilliwack but their residence was in Hope. The identities of the individuals is not released to the public or the media.
“It’s sad when somebody passes away, there’s always ripple effects and there’s people that are caught up in it. There’s always a mom or dad in most cases, there’s family,” Rehdner added.
Following their deaths, Rehdner said he tasked RCMP members to get in touch with individuals in town known to take illicit substances. “From the perspective of keeping them alive, the conversation was not don’t use – that’s always the overriding mantra, understood or expected the fact that wasn’t going to happen overnight,” he said. The message was to “use with a buddy, make sure you have a plan and make sure you have naloxone with you.”
A spokesperson with Fraser Health stated by email on March 24 that the health authority was not seeing an increase in confirmed overdoses in Hope. “We continue to monitor overdoses in communities throughout Fraser Health and should there be an increase in confirmed overdoses, a community alert will be shared,” Aletta Vanderheyden stated.
Whether the deaths had anything to do with the March 18 search warrant executed at a home in Hope, Rehdner could not say. “Whether the drugs were purchased from that location or not, I have no idea,” he said. At the home police located illicit substances including heroin, fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine (crystal meth), as well as paraphernalia, and are now looking to process charges before the courts related to the bust.
Overdose crisis ‘not forgotten’ amid COVID-19: health authorities
It has been four years since B.C.’s opioid overdose crisis was declared a public health emergency. Over 4,700 people have died as a result of illicit drug overdoses in that time.
Late last year, the B.C. Coroners Service found Hope to be one of five communities in the province with the highest rates per capita of illicit drug deaths.
Between 2017 and 2019 the number of overdose deaths per 100,000 population (49.2) was the same in Hope as in Vancouver, the epicentre of the province’s opioid overdose crisis. The numbers, which stretch back to 2009, also show Hope’s death rate is rising as the numbers are falling provincewide.
Marking the four years since the emergency was declared, provincial politicians and health officials are adamant it isn’t being forgotten even with the response to the coronavirus. “We’re not letting this (COVID-19) crisis overtake the importance of our response to our overdose crisis,” provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said.
Measures people are told to take to stop the spread of COVID-19 – including washing hands frequently and maintaining physical distance – can be difficult to practice if living outside, in a single room occupancy (SRO) or in a shelter the BC Centre for Disease Control states.
For rural and remote communities, people who use drugs have added difficulties with a lack of access to overdose prevention sites and opioid agonist therapies the First Nations Health Authority stated.
The coronavirus and its effects, including respiratory infection and other health problems, can pose a risk to people who use drugs the authority stated. “COVID-19 may increase the risk of overdose death when using opioids, such as fentanyl, because opioids cause our breathing rate to slow down,” FNHA stated. “We also know that COVID-19 is spread through droplets in the breath of those who have COVID-19, and that helping someone breathe is essential to overdose response.”
The BCCCDC is encouraging people to continue to stimulate people who may be overdosing, to call 9-1-1, wear gloves and give rescue breaths using face shields contained in naloxone kits.
B.C.’s Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy also acknowledged the “increasingly toxic street drug supply” being a risk for people who use drugs during the pandemic.
In response, Darcy said new guidelines have gone out for physicians, nurse practitioners and pharmacists to help people experiencing withdrawal and those at risk of overdose. “Safe prescription alternatives to the unpredictable and toxic drug supply can be safely prescribed and delivered to those in greatest need,” she stated. “Importantly, this includes providing safer alternatives for people with addictions to alcohol, opioids, tobacco, stimulants, and benzodiazepines.”
Darcy encouraged people to talk to their health care providers or call 8-1-1 to ask about these options. “In order to benefit from the new guidance, people don’t need to have been accessing substance use treatment already,” she stated. “People living with addiction shouldn’t have to risk their lives to get the safe prescription medication they need.”