Thirteen people have died of drug overdoses in the Yukon since January, signalling a dramatic rise in opioid-related deaths.
“Clearly, clearly, clearly, the numbers we are seeing this year are a cause for real concern and deep sadness,” Heather Jones, the Yukon’s chief coroner, told a news conference this morning, at which the latest overdose numbers were released.
“These numbers represent people who were rooted in our communities … mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandchildren and so much more.”
Health Minister Pauline Frost, Dr. Brendan Hanley, the chief medical officer, Kwanlin Dün First Nation Chief Doris Bill and Yukon RCMP
Supt. Scott Shepherd were also present at the news conference.
Jones said many of the 13 dead were individuals in their 20s and 30s.
Six of the 13 people were using drugs alone.
At least five of the deaths involved a First Nations person.
Seven of the deaths occurred in Whitehorse.
Eight of the 13 deaths were a result of opioids and toxic amounts of fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a dangerous drug and painkiller found in opioids such as OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, codeine, heroin and morphine.
It has been increasingly found as a component of illicit drugs in the last four years and has contributed to an overdose crisis across North America.
The Yukon has seen a consistent number of overdose deaths linked to fentanyl since 2016.
In 2016, there were seven overdose deaths, all fentanyl-related. In the following years there were seven, nine and six overdose deaths, Jones said.
The first seven months of this year have already seen nearly double the number of deaths seen in previous years.
“This is more deaths from opioids than we have experienced in any other year since fentanyl first made its entrance into our territory in 2016,” said Hanley.
“Fentanyl is still very much present and even being pushed into this market, so taking drugs is as dangerous or more dangerous than ever.”
Public health officials said this morning the pandemic seems to be compounding a pre-existing opioid crisis. Supply chain disruptions
have made the street supply of illicit drugs less predictable and safe.
Before the pandemic, drug users were instructed not to use drugs alone and to have a naloxone kit available while using.
During the pandemic, people were instructed to distance themselves and stay home. The combination of isolation, decrease in services and more people using alone may have contributed to the number of overdose deaths.
Bill said that there has been an uptick in drug use since the COVID-19 pandemic began early this year.
“While the pandemic is not the cause of these tragedies, there has been a notable spike in these losses during COVID,” Bill said.
“We have witnessed increased partying in some of our communities and a number of gaps in the system have presented themselves.”
Bill noted that lack of treatment spaces, housing security and limited land-based healing options are available.
“We have to adapt, work collaboratively and be willing to think outside of the box and be willing to try new things, and try them quickly, or we will lose more lives,” Bill said.
Shepherd said the RCMP’s crime reduction unit has been targeting drug traffickers through the Yukon this year, but that the problem won’t be solved that way.
“To coin an old phrase, we’re not going to arrest our way out of what is extensively a health problem,” Shepherd said.
“If we can address the desire to have drugs in our community, I think we’ll be far better off.”
Hanley said there isn’t one easy solution to the opioid crisis.
“This is a very complex problem – it depends on a community approach, understanding the roots of marginalization and vulnerability … or homelessness, it’s understanding trauma and its relationship with substance use and looking at newer and innovative ways,” Hanley said.
“There’s so much to do; there always has been.”
Frost said the Department of Health and Social Services is considering developing a supervised consumption site and exploring the introduction of a safe supply chain.
In the meantime, harm reduction education is underway.
The community of Watson Lake has declared August to be Overdose Awareness Month and has developed a harm reduction advisory board.
Opioid Treatment Services are available at the Referred Care Clinic in Whitehorse.
The Blood Ties centre also offers harm reduction services, including fentanyl testing, safer crack kits and injection equipment, safer meth kits and safer snorting kits.
Increased naloxone training will also be provided throughout the territory.
Reducing the stigma of drug-related deaths is also a priority for the Health department.
“Please, Yukoners, be compassionate – this is not the time to shame people or pass judgment,” Frost said.