Information from the Yukon Coroner’s Service lends further context to the ongoing crisis caused by opioid-related deaths in the territory.
In a March 17 notice, the coroner’s service confirmed there were 24 opioid-related deaths in the territory in 2021. There were also nine deaths attributed to opioids between Jan. 5 and Feb. 22 — a 10th death is awaiting a full toxicological analysis before the coroner can make a conclusion. There have been 67 deaths since 2016, according to the coroner.
Along with the total death toll, the coroner provided further information on who the crisis is killing and what drugs are responsible for the deaths in 2021.
Twenty of the 24 deaths in 2021 occurred in Whitehorse. Most were male, 67 per cent, while the remaining 33 per cent were female. Almost half of those who died, 42 per cent, were First Nation citizens. The ages of those who died ranged from 23 to 60.
The confimed opioid deaths represented 20 per cent of all cases investigated by the Yukon Coroner’s Service in 2021.
Fentanyl was involved in all of the 2021 opioid deaths but a mixture of drugs was present in many. According to the coroner, the presence of benzodiazapines was confirmed in six cases, cocaine was present in 17 cases and carfentanil was found in two.
The deaths recorded in the early months of 2022 followed many of the same trends, however, First Nation citizens were even more disproportionally represented among those who died — 70 per cent of the early 2022 deaths.
“These deaths represent 40 per cent of all cases investigated by YCS since January 2022,” the March 17 notice from the coroner’s service reads.
“The YCS is beginning to see more First Nations citizens being affected, as well as more women and people in younger age groups. Alcohol remains a factor in many cases.”
The Yukon’s chief coroner, Heather Jones, expressed condolences in a statement.
“What the Yukon is experiencing is astonishingly difficult. We must show kindness, wisdom and compassion to those struggling with substance use, and work to support each other as we grieve,” Jones said.
As the unprecedented crisis continues, those who are trying to help are adjusting their efforts. Brontë Renwick-Shields, the executive director of Blood Ties Four Directions Centre, said a steady increase in demand for their services has been observed since 2020.
She said recent efforts have included more support and education outside Whitehorse in response to requests from the communities. Based on community needs, Blood Ties works to provide harm reduction and overdose prevention equipment and education.
In Whitehorse, Blood Ties runs the outreach van alongside the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Society Yukon (FASSY).
A relatively new addition to the response to high-risk drug use in Whitehorse is the safe consumption site that opened in September 2021. Renwick-Shields said Blood Ties knew that because the safe consumption site is a new initiative it would take a while for community trust to be established. She said it is seeing increased use. Following a survey of those who used or may use the consumption site, Renwick Shields said the site’s hours were adjusted from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. to 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.
She said there has also been increased use of the FTIR spectrometer at the consumption site that can check drugs for harmful components.
Drug checking is also among the services provided at Blood Ties’ Ogilve Street location — it is one of the locations where Blood Ties makes naloxone kits available.
Naloxone is a medication capable of reversing the effects of an opioid overdose. Blood Ties has launched a new initiative, Knocks for Naloxone, in an attempt to make the potentially life-saving naloxone kits available in more places and reduce stigma around them. It will see businesses and other locations that have naloxone kits and trained staff on site given a sticker for their front window so those in need know that help is available.
Renwick-Shields said any organizations interested in participating in the program can contact Blood Ties and speak to its harm reduction counselor.
Contact Jim Elliot at email@example.com