VICTORIA -- Overdose deaths linked to illicit drugs dropped by 36 per cent last year in British Columbia compared with a year earlier, but the number of fatalities is about the same as when the province declared a provincial health emergency.

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe says 981 people died of suspected overdoses in 2019.

She says that represents an average of 2.7 deaths a day and the number is likely to increase as investigations of last year's deaths conclude.

Lapointe says more than 5,000 people have died in B.C. since 2016 when the health emergency was declared as opioid fentanyl was increasingly detected in street drugs.

She says the BC Coroners Service is joining health officials in renewing calls for improved access to a regulated, safer drug supply in the province.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says the reduction in numbers last year indicates harm-reduction measures are making a difference.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 24, 2020.