B.C.'s daily COVID-19 numbers may be starting to blunt, but the number of people dying due to toxic street drugs in the province's other public health crisis continues unabated.

A total of 498 people died from illicit drug overdoses — five deaths a day — during the first three months of 2021, according to a BC Coroners Service report released Thursday.

The total to date for the year surpassed the previous high of 401 deaths recorded between January and March in 2017, with 158 people dying across the province last month.

Men accounted for 80 per cent of the deaths in 2021, with 86 per cent taking place indoors, and 56 per cent in private homes.

Advocate Leslie McBain, co-founder of Moms Stop The Harm (MSTH), a group comprised of families who have lost loved ones to toxic street drugs, said the unrelenting, yet preventable deaths, are wearying.

"For the people who work on this, for myself and colleagues who are activists and advocates, It was a hard day," said McBain. "We just feel sort of demoralized. It seems like people who use drugs and their deaths are invisible in some way."

Northern Health had the highest fatality rate this year, with 57 deaths per 100,000 people. Island Health saw the lowest of the five health authorities, at 33 deaths per 100,000, while the provincial fatality rate was 38 deaths per 100,000.

However, the cities seeing the highest number of drug crisis deaths so far in 2021 are Vancouver with 112 fatalities, Surrey with 60, and Victoria at 37.

Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson issued a statement saying the toxic drug deaths were heartbreaking and the province stands in solidarity with everyone mourning the death of a loved one.

"It seems like people who use drugs and their deaths are invisible in some way," says @leslie_mcbain of @momsstoptheharm on the deaths of 498 people in B.C. from toxic, illicit drugs in first three months of 2021.

"Our province is grateful for front-line workers, caregivers, families and peers responding to overdoses and caring for loved ones during two public health emergencies," Malcolmson said.

Stigma and criminalization, paired with the pandemic, is pushing people further into isolation, compounding the risks of an increasingly lethal illicit drug supply, she added.

"The effects of two public health emergencies have taken an immense toll," the minister said. "People and communities are hurting, and we will do more to stop this terrible surge of overdose deaths."

In response to the crisis, the province has increased the number of overdose prevention sites, community outreach teams, and is making naloxone widely available, she said.

Last week's provincial budget also invested $500 million in people's mental health and well-being to turn the tide of the crisis, Malcolmson added.

The funds will add new treatment beds around the province, invest massively in youth mental health services in communities through Foundry centres, and implement nurse prescribing programs.

Investments in youth mental health are fantastic, said McBain, but investing heavily in treatment before putting effort and money into building a comprehensive safe supply for people who use drugs isn't logical.

"We work so hard to try and keep people alive, and the government is talking about other things," McBain said.

"I feel like a broken record, you know, but treatment beds only work if you're alive.

"The biggest fact is they're just not attending to the toxic drug supply out there that's killing people."

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