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B.C. paramedics responded to overdoses about every 20 minutes in 2020: report

Last Updated Jan 21, 2021 at 12:34 am PST

A naloxone anti-overdose kit is shown in Vancouver, Friday, Feb. 10, 2017. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)
Summary

B.C.'s other public health emergency set too many records last year

Paramedics say they responded to more overdose calls in 2020, than ever before

They were called to just over 27,000 overdoses, which is an average of 74 calls every day

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — B.C. paramedics were kept incredibly busy last year responding to just over 27,000 overdoses — averaging 74 calls every day or one call every 20 minutes.

According to B.C. Emergency Health Services, in 2020, paramedics responded to more overdose calls than ever before.

And behind the staggering number, Guy Felicella with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use says there are significant losses.

“Behind every loss is a story of somebody that loved life… These are people, and circumstances happen in people’s lives, and traumas happen in people’s lives, and nobody chooses to become addicted to drugs, and nobody would choose to die of an overdose,” he says.

The number of dispatches from last year are up 12 per cent compared to 2019.

In a release, Pat Hussey, the paramedic unit chief in Penticton explains, the calls last year were also more complex due to toxic drug supply because “overdoses require multiple doses of Naloxone and the patient often has breathing and neurological complications.”

Felicella says the lack of immediate action to address the overdose crisis is heartbreaking.

“What we’ve shown is that there hasn’t been much in the way of meeting substance users where they’re at and offering a safer alternative that they can access to remove them completely from the toxic drug supply,” he says.

“I don’t blame COVID for it. I blame the lack of urgency in addressing this crisis for years before that. COVID just really ripped down the infrastructure that everybody thought we had, which it completely annihilated it.”

Calls in the Downtown Eastside decreased 14 per cent, and according to the B.C. Emergency Health Services, the community averaged more than 5,000 overdose calls a year, but in 2020, 761 fewer overdose calls were made.

But more rural communities outside the Lower Mainland saw huge jumps.

“The stigma and discrimination that is driving people to use alone and that comes from bad drug policies, and then that fuels the general population use on substance use. The main driver of the overdose crisis is policies, stigma and discrimination. If we can alleviate those three components, we can then focus on giving people safer drugs,” Felicella says.

There was a slight decrease in the Vancouver Coastal region by four per cent, but the region and Fraser Valley regions continue to record the highest numbers making up more than 50 per cent of the province’s population.

Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria remain the top communities for overdose calls.

“It’s been such a tough few years, losing the amount of friends that I’ve lost and just the amount of people have come across my past that are no longer here and it’s just, it’s gotten to the point where it’s so heartbreaking that it’s very hard to put into words sometimes,” he says.

Felicella has felt that personal impact recently, losing a friend of over 30 years in December.

“The father said to me, ‘Guy, she dealt with a tremendous amount of shame and it was so overwhelming for her…. And although I didn’t get the relationship that I wanted, and that I had to love her from afar, I was glad to know that people like yourself and others loved her and that makes me sleep easier at night.’”

He says the shame that drug users often feel is directly linked to bad policy, and the stigma that comes from it.