Photo by Whitehorse Star
Yukon coroner Heather Jones
Photo by Whitehorse Star
Yukon coroner Heather Jones
It appears as if the Yukon’s problem with opioid deaths is accelerating.
In a news release issued late Friday, the Yukon Coroner’s Service confirmed three deaths as a result of drug overdoses, involving the opioid fentanyl, since mid-January.
No figures for opioid-related overdoses have been released since last summer, so the current numbers appear more startling.
Yukon coroner Heather Jones said in the release a fourth death during the same time period is pending toxicological results, but is suspected to be attributable to a drug overdose.
All of these deaths occurred in the Whitehorse area.
“Drug overdoses continue to take the lives of Yukoners at an alarming rate,” said Jones.
“Since Yukon’s first fentanyl death in 2016, Yukon has had a total of 36 confirmed opioid deaths, 28 of which involved fentanyl.
“In 2020, the Coroner’s Service investigated 14 drug overdose deaths. Of these, 10 involved opioids, eight of which were fentanyl-based. These numbers are more than double those that were seen in 2019.”
Jill Aalhus, the program manager for the Blood Ties Four Directions Centre, called the report by Jones concerning.
“We were very saddened to hear it,” she told the Star this morning.
“But not surprised. The pandemic has affected the drug supply in the Yukon.
“We’ve heard anecdotally that there is more fentanyl contaminating the drugs available.
“While we don’t have a clear picture, we think there could be increased contamination in the drugs, and people may not know exactly what they’re taking.”
Aalhus added “there is a great deal of concern in the community about these issues.
“We need to advocate for a safe supply of drugs for people and for support to deal with these issues.”
Naloxone is also one of the key items needing to be made easily available to the public, Aalhus added. It’s used to treat overdoses until proper medical help can be obtained.
However, there could be a problem with that, according to at least one person.
Local resident Mike Simon told the Star he always tries to carry a kit with him while he travels the Yukon for work.
He’s encountered several people who have been unconscious, likely due to drugs.
He said he recently went to a Shoppers Drug Mart location in Whitehorse to obtain a new kit.
Simon said he was disconcerted to discover the free kits made available by the government are injection kits. He said he had obtained kits in Toronto approximately two years ago that contained nasal sprays rather than hypodermic needles.
Simon said he believed the injection kits are too complicated to be relied on, and their use is potentially dangerous.
He made some inquiries – and was told he could obtain the nasal spray kits if he wished to pay for them.
“They said the injection kits were cheaper,” Simon told the Star.
The spray kits were much more expensive, he said, although he didn’t remember the exact cost.
“You have to question the rationale of the government,” he said. “You want something that’s easy to use.”
Some of the Yukon’s political leaders weighed in on the situation as well.
“We are deeply saddened to hear of these deaths,” said NDP leader Kate White.
“People across the Yukon are losing neighbours, friends, and family members, and their loss affects our entire community.
“Much more needs to be done. We need a public health approach to drug use, not a criminal approach.”
Pauline Frost, the minister of Health and Social Services, said “the recent opioid-related deaths are a tragic reminder that fentanyl continues to present a very real danger in our communities.
“This is not the time to shame people or pass judgment. It is time to rally around our communities, our friends, our neighbours and family members who need our support.
“We need to be compassionate and supportive, and work to end the stigma around drug use and addiction,” Frost added.
“Our government is working with our community partners to expand drug-checking capacity in the territory, and to remind people not to use alone and to keep naloxone kits on hand.”
Dr. Brendan Hanley, the Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, also commented in the release.
“All Yukon communities have been affected by these deaths and it is clear this is still an issue of real concern,” he said.
“These deaths and overdoses are occurring in people from all walks of life, and in ages.
“Given the number of overdoses that both Yukon RCMP and Emergency Medical Services have responded to in recent months, we are fortunate the death toll is not higher.”
Hanley said a number of initiatives have been introduced to support individuals, however.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also played a part in how services are offered and accepted.
“Although much is in place for those who are ready and willing to access the services, we recognize that there is still much work to be done.”
Chief Supt. Scott Sheppard, the commanding officer of the RCMP “M” Division, stated in the release, “The Yukon RCMP works daily alongside our first responders and remains concerned about the impacts illicit drugs are having on our community.
“Between April 1, 2020 and December 31, 2020, Yukon RCMP members administered Naloxone to members of the general public on 23 separate occasions.
“The RCMP have also attended an additional 46 separate calls for service where synthetic opioid/fentanyl was suspected. The possible consumption of drugs contaminated with fentanyl, and potential overdose, is very real in our territory. The consequences are severe.”
“Any death is a tragedy, and our hearts go out to those impacted,” the Yukon Party said early this afternoon.
“For the last several years, we have been calling on the government to do more to address the growing opioid crisis in the territory including by providing increased resources for mental health and drug addictions services.
“While these issues have been here for years, we know that the pandemic and the unintended consequences of the government-imposed restrictions have exacerbated the problem,” the official opposition added.
“In the fall legislative sitting, our very first question of the government was what they were doing to address this issue and the growing opioid crisis and unfortunately, the government was dismissive.
“We also proposed the creation of an all-party committee that would have quickly studied the current supports available to address mental health and addictions issues and provide recommendations on how to immediately improve them.
“Unfortunately, the Liberals did not support this proposal. These issues are urgent and the government needs to start taking quick and decisive action to address them.”
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