VICTORIA - British Columbia's health minister says he's hopeful the rate of drug overdose deaths will start dropping this month as a result of action taken by the province to curb a disturbing spike in opioid-related fatalities.
So far, last month's declaration of a public-health emergency doesn't appear to have slowed the number of overdose deaths, said Terry Lake, who noted fentanyl appears to be playing an increasingly central role.
"The numbers are continuing to be extremely high," Lake said. "We're on track for a record year."
Updated numbers released Thursday, May 12, by the BC Coroners Service showed the deadly opioid was linked to nearly half of more than 250 overdose deaths tallied for the first four months of this year.
That's compared to about a third of the 480 overdose fatalities for all of last year.
"Definitely, fentanyl is a big, big part of what's going on," Lake said.
The emergency declaration made in April allows health officers to collect information in real time to identify patterns and respond with preventative measures by targeting certain areas and groups of people. The step reduces the lag of waiting for data from the coroner's office.
But the number of deaths has continued to grow, despite increased outreach initiatives, aggressive awareness campaigns and the rapid distribution of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone.
"With the declaration of the public-health emergency, with increased availability of naloxone (and) with the increased number of first responders available to administer it, I'm hopeful that this month we'll start to see those numbers come down," said Lake.
"But it really is something that we have to continue to talk about, to make sure people are very aware."
B.C.'s medical health officer Perry Kendall said he wasn't surprised by the update.
"(Overdose deaths) haven't gone down yet, but I didn't really think that they would have," he said on Thursday.
"This obviously means we need to work on them."
Kendall predicted last month that if the number of fatalities continued to rise at this rate, the total could exceed 800 by year's end.
The Fraser Valley region leads the province with a total of 76 overdose deaths in the first four months of 2016. That's followed by 66 deaths in Metro Vancouver and 54 on Vancouver Island. There have been 45 overdose fatalities in the Interior and 15 in Northern B.C.
— By Geordon Omand in Vancouver, follow @gwomand on Twitter