Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has issued a new public health order making it easier for people to access safe alternatives to toxic street drugs.

The order, issued on Wednesday, authorizes registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses to prescribe pharmaceutical alternatives to street drugs “to help separate more people from the poisoned street drug supply to save lives and provide opportunities for ongoing care, treatment and support.”

Only doctors and nurse practitioners have been able to prescribe drugs, including substitute medications for illicit-drug users as an alternative to potentially deadly substances on the street.

Overdose deaths have spiked in B.C. since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. B.C. recorded 911 overdose deaths between January and July of 2020. Over that same period of time, 195 people died of COVID-19.

More than 5,000 people have fatally overdosed in B.C. since the province declared a public health emergency in 2016. Before the pandemic, the number of fatalities had been on the decline for the first time since 2012.

“We know the pandemic has only made the street drug supply in B.C. more toxic than ever, putting people who use drugs at extremely high risk for overdose,” Henry wrote in a written statement.

“Giving physicians and nurse practitioners the ability to prescribe safer pharmaceutical alternatives has been critical to saving lives and linking more people to treatment and other health and social services.

“I am issuing a provincial health officer order to expand the health professionals who are able to provide safer, accessible alternatives to the toxic street drug supply and help more people find their pathway to hope.”

The new order will also expand the criteria of who is eligible, expand the types of medications that can be prescribed, and increase access points to allow for dispensing medications from health authorities and community pharmacies.

Henry says new nursing standards will be introduced, along with training, education and access to expert consultation.

The BC Centre for Disease Control estimates that nearly 6,000 deaths have been averted since April 2016 because of supports that have been put in place, including the distribution of naloxone, the creation of more overdose prevention sites and improved access to medication-assisted treatment.

In March, B.C. released a plan to provide a safe supply of drugs during COVID-19 pandemic.

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