Brenda Mattson, at a vigil and march in Whitehorse on Dec. 13 in honour of those who’ve died of drug overdoses, holds a poster about her son Dustin Blackjack who died in 2015 after a battle with opioid addiction. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Number of opioid deaths in the Yukon increases to 18

The news out came during a Dec. 13 panel discussion on the crisis

The number of opioid-related deaths in the Yukon has climbed to 18 deaths since 2016, Chief Coroner Heather Jones said, with more than half of them involving fentanyl.

This is an increase of three confirmed deaths related to opioids, as reported by the News in October and attributed to Jones’s office.

Jones disclosed this information at a panel discussion in Whitehorse on Dec. 13. Other panelists included Dr. Brendan Hanley, Doris Bill, chief of Kwanlin Dün First Nation, and RCMP Chief Superintendent Scott Sheppard.

Hanley previously told the News there were 16 opioid-related deaths in the territory since 2016.

At the time, he said the discrepancy of statistics between his office and Jones’ is a result of delays in obtaining toxicology results.

This year, there have been four opioid-related deaths, Jones said. Of that number, three involved fentanyl.

She said she’s investigating “at least” three other deaths with strong evidence potentially classifying them as opioid overdoses.

“I can’t confirm those numbers, but I am including them today. I think it’s important as we gather to look at this openly and honestly,” she said.

Nearly 18 per cent of deaths Jones investigates, she said, involve opioids.

“That’s significant,” she said, adding that the drug doesn’t discriminate by age, race or sex.

“Everyone is at risk with these deaths, for sure,” Jones said.

More information trickled out at the panel discussion.

Wait times for qualitative toxicology data have been reduced.

In the last two weeks, Jones said an “expedited” service has been acquired.

“Once I have the sample to the toxicology centre, they guarantee (in) 48 hours that I have qualitative analysis, which means we can confirm quite quickly,” she said.

It took about three months to get this information earlier this year, Jones said.

She characterized the process as “piggybacking” on B.C.’s coroner service. Results are processed at the Provincial Toxicology Centre.

Jones said within roughly one week, families can be provided with answers.

She clarified this information is not public at this point.

“Dr. Hanley and I have to have a really good balance (of) protecting privacy and grieving processes … with public interest,” she said.

Chief Bill said it’s “imperative” that information is received immediately to alert citizens and provide them with supports.

“When people die in your community, and they die because of a fentanyl-related death, we, at the community level, as leaders, need to know what we’re dealing with. We need to know if we have bad drugs that are circulating in our community,” she said.

Bill appeared to go against part of what Jones said.

“Sometimes the privacy issue gets in the way,” she said. “The lack of access to information can hinder what you’re doing at the grassroots level.”

Sitting in the audience was Andrea Stastny. Her daughter, Jessica Johnson-Stastny, died last August at 26-years-old. The drugs she used were cut with fentanyl.

While Andrea believes the crisis should be treated as a public health issue, which was acknowledged by Hanley and Sheppard, the chief RCMP superintendent, she said police should get tough on crime, bringing drug pushers to justice — and quickly.

Asked what needs to change, specifically, Andrea said, “More patrolling, more traffic stops. I know the RCMP know who these dealers are. I just don’t see what the big complication is.”

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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