Illicit drug overdoses are claiming lives at rates never seen before, a trend described by the Island’s medical health officer as heart breaking.
“Unfortunately it’s not going away and it’s not going away any time soon,” Charmaine Enns, Island Health’s chief medical health officer, told city council at its Monday night meeting.
In fact, statistics show that fatal overdose rates are not only not going away, but they’re on the rise.
“We were averaging two opioid overdose deaths a day in the province (in 2016),” Enns said. “For the month of December we were having an average of four deaths a day.”
In total, 914 people died in B.C. from an opioid overdose last year, an increase of 79.2 per cent over the 510 deaths in 2015.
Vancouver Island saw the largest increase among B.C. regions, with 155 opioid overdose deaths in 2016 – a 156 per cent increase.
Of those, Enns said 23 overdose deaths occurred on the North Island, with 10 of those deaths happening in Campbell River.
“That’s a significant rise in baseline from years previous. Normally we see three at the most, so that’s triple the rate,” Enns said. “There’s been a lot of talk about opioid overdose deaths in Victoria and Nanaimo because they’re bigger centres, with bigger numbers to report out. In smaller communities the numbers get lost because they’re smaller numbers to report because we’re smaller populations. While the North Island is comprised of smaller communities, we have the same rate of deaths happening in our communities. We haven’t escaped the crisis.”
Enns said the majority of overdose deaths (73 per cent) are happening in men between the ages of 19 and 49 years old.
“This breaks my heart,” Enns said. “We have a crisis impacting a whole generation of men in the prime of their life and I find this very disturbing.”
She said the majority of overdoses, at 70 per cent, are associated with heroine, which, laced with fentanyl, has contributed to much of the increase in fatal overdoses due to illicit drugs.
“This is fentanyl coming from China and it’s mixed in with illicit drugs and there’s no quality control for illicit drugs so you really don’t know what you’re getting when you’re taking illicit drugs,” Enns said.
The other problem is that people are using while on their own. According to statistics presented by Enns, 90 per cent of overdose deaths in B.C. last year occurred inside a private residence or other building. In December, following the spike in overdose deaths, the province issued a ministerial order to health authorities across B.C. to establish overdose prevention sites to address the issue of people using alone.
Island Health has been running such a facility in Victoria for nearly two months and just recently established an overdose prevention site in Nanaimo.
Enns said for smaller communities like Campbell River, Island Health intends to create multiple sites with one or two stations inside an already existing Island Health or associated site.
The service will likely be incorporated into the facility’s other responsibilities, rather than acting as a stand alone.
The overdose prevention sites exist to provide a safe space for people to inject their illicit substances with sterile equipment, in a setting where staff – typically paramedics – can observe and intervene in overdoses as needed. Enns pointed out that the overdose prevention sites are not the same as safe consumption sites which require federal government approval and provide a much fuller and robust service.
Jan Tatlock, Island Health’s director of public health, said at safe injection sites, people come in with their supply, move to the injection portion of the room and then move to the ‘chill out’ portion of the room.
“They can stay minimally for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, but sometimes they stay longer,” Tatlock said. “It’s a time they can interact with others, they can access services or even ask some questions at that time.”
Lisa Murphy, Island Health’s director of mental health and substance abuse, said that the aim of the sites is about saving lives. She said that typically those who overdose are people who feel disconnected from their community and isolated because they know they’re engaging in an illegal activity.
“We know most of the deaths are occurring because people are alone in their home so any opportunity to have people come to a supervised site, even consistently continually hearing the message not to use alone,” Murphy said. “Knowing city council, law enforcement, health and other partners we work with are welcoming and encouraging them to come for a life-saving service sends a very positive message to people who felt alone in their illness.”
At Monday’s council meeting, Coun. Colleen Evans praised Island Health for its efforts.
“It is about saving lives,” said Evans. “And when we have the potential to save lives, that’s a good day.”
Following Enns’ presentation, council gave support in principle to Island Health’s efforts to address illicit overdoses in the city, as well as an overdose prevention and management working group that was initiated in Campbell River in July, 2016 and includes Island Health and its community partners, as well as School District 72, BC Ambulance, fire, RCMP, Kwakiutl District Council and the First Nations Health Authority. Council also agreed to provide a city staff member to participate in the working group.
“I think you know it goes without saying that we support in principle,” Mayor Andy Adams told Enns. “More importantly, it’s raising awareness of a very, very unfortunate issue that’s happening in our community.”