A written message is seen attached to a pair of shoes hung on the Burrard Bridge in remembrance of victims of illicit drug overdose deaths on International Overdose Awareness Day, in Vancouver, on Monday, August 31, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A written message is seen attached to a pair of shoes hung on the Burrard Bridge in remembrance of victims of illicit drug overdose deaths on International Overdose Awareness Day, in Vancouver, on Monday, August 31, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

B.C. paramedics respond to record-breaking number of overdose calls in 2020

On the front lines, COVID-19 has not only led to more calls, but increased the complexity

B.C.’s overdose crisis has worsened from an already-dire state amid the pandemic and new alarming statistics from the province’s paramedics are painting a grim picture of just how bad it has gotten.

BC Emergency Health Services announced Wednesday that paramedics responded to 27,067 overdose calls in 2020, up 12 per cent from the year prior. That’s roughly 75 calls each day.

“It’s hard for every paramedic who goes to those scenes,” Pat Hussey, Penticton paramedic unit chief, said in a statement. The Okanagan city had a 87-per-cent increase in overdose calls year-over-year, responding to 474 incidents in 2020.

Smaller communities saw the largest spike in calls – highlighting the rural reach the illicit drug trade has in the province. This included in Fort Nelson, with 20 calls (a 233 per cent increase), followed by Keremeos, with 16 calls (up 167 per cent year-over-year).

READ MORE: B.C. paramedics responded to a record-breaking 2,700 overdose calls in July

ALSO READ: B.C. firefighters only responding to most life-threatening calls during COVID-19 pandemic

Other worrisome upticks were seen in Sechelt with 87 calls (a 112 per cent increase), Terrace with 208 calls (up 112 per cent) and Houston with 22 calls (up 100 per cent).

The Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Valley regions continued to have the highest number of overdose calls as they include 50 per cent of the province’s population. Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria remained the top communities for overdose calls and subsequent deaths.

Health officials and advocates have said that the pandemic exacerbated the grip of illicit drugs – with toxicity increasing – as well as forced many drug users into social isolation, using alone.

BC Coroners Service has not yet released overdose death statistics for December 2020. Between January and November, 1,548 British Columbians fatally overdosed.

ALSO READ: Some B.C. nurses given green light to prescribe safe drugs amid overdose spike

On the front lines, Hussey said the pandemic’s impacts have not only led to more calls, but increased the complexity. With current drug toxicity levels, overdoses often require multiple doses of the opioid reversing antidote, naloxone.

The latest statistics offered one glimmer of hope: as every other region saw an uptick in calls, the hardest-hit community saw a decrease.

According to BC EHS, the Downtown Eastside saw a 14 per cent decrease in calls. There, the average is 5,000 calls a year, but that dropped to 4,574 in 2020. The busiest day for overdose calls continued to happen on the day welfare cheques were released, which is the third Wednesday of each month.

Paramedic unit chief Tim Lehman, who works at the ambulance station in the heart of the community, said paramedics receive plenty of support from harm-reduction agencies and volunteers in the area. Everyone also has naloxone, he said.

Under Canada’s Good Samaritan Act, anyone who calls 911 to report an overdose is protected from charges related to drug possession and are not liable for injuries or death of the person suffering an overdose.

Overdose Response in BC Communities in 2020 by Ashley Wadhwani on Scribd


@ashwadhwani
ashley.wadhwani@bpdigital.ca

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