Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost speaks at a press conference addressing opioid use in the territory in Whitehorse on July 31. (Alistair Maitland Photography)

Number of overdose deaths increasing substantially

13 deaths since January, compared to six in all of 2019

Concerns are rising in the Yukon over the number of overdose deaths in the territory as they continue to increase in 2020. There have been 13 since January.

“Clearly it’s a crisis that we’re in right now,” Health and Social Services Minister Pauline Frost said at a joint press conference July 31.

Frost was joined by Kwanlin Dün First Nation Chief Doris Bill, Yukon RCMP commanding officer Chief Superintendent Scott Sheppard, Chief Coroner Heather Jones, and Chief Medial Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley.

The number of deaths that occurred in a little more than the first half of 2020 are more than double the total number in all of 2019, when there were six deaths.

Meanwhile, 2018 saw nine, and 2016 and 2017 both saw seven deaths associated with drug overdoses.

“These deaths are heartbreaking. With each death, our community loses a son or a daughter, a neighbour or a colleague,” Frost said. “People need to be aware about the dangers of illicit drug use and know that opioid use does not discriminate. This is a complex problem that we need to address as a community. This includes working to reduce the stigma around people who use drugs, which remains a significant barrier that prevents individuals, families and communities from getting help.”

Bill said the crisis is taking lives and shattering communities, adding that Indigenous people have been disproportionally impacted by the overdose crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light a number of gaps and also led to more isolation and more people using alone, Bill said.

Hanley noted Aug. 31 will mark international overdose awareness day.

Jones said in six of the 13 deaths this year, the person had been using alone.

“Given the number of deaths in only seven months and the continued efforts we have undertaken to caution people, we have reached another level of crisis. We have to think differently about how we meet the needs of this segment of our population to keep them safe and to keep those at risk alive,” Hanley said.

Sheppard noted a substantial increase in RCMP administering naloxone this year.

“From a front-line perspective it is very worrisome,” he said.

While officials praised the ongoing work of individuals and organizations like Blood Ties Four Directions, with Hanley indicating the crisis in the territory could have been much worse had that work not been done before the global pandemic, it was also made clear there is a lot to do to address the crisis.

“This is a crisis we need to work together on,” Bill said.

Frost said that discussions with community partners and the office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health are continuing on the possibility of a safe consumption site.

There’s also work on training in the communities. Beginning Aug. 3 for four days, naloxone training and increased harm reduction training will be offered to EMS, physicians, RCMP and firefighters in Watson Lake.

Officials also highlighted harm reduction services offered by Blood Ties including fentanyl testing, safer crack kits, injection equipment, safer meth kits and safer snorting kits.

Fentanyl testing is also available through the outreach van by calling 334-1647 Monday to Saturday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. with the van able to meet anyone within city limits. Outreach services can also deliver harm reduction supplies to clients’ homes, and Blood Ties will be able to start testing for benzodiazepines in the near future.

There are also opioid treatment services at the referred care clinic at 210 Elliot St. and opioid overdose prevention can be reached at 332-0722.

A number of supports for mental health during COVID-19 are listed on the Yukon government’s website.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at stephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com

Opioid Deaths

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