A vaccine may soon help quell the COVID-19 pandemic, but the other deadly scourge haunting B.C. families shows no sign of coming to an end.
This year will likely be the worst in Abbotsford’s history for overdose deaths, with nearly four dozen fatalities already recorded, and advocates warning the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic may be contributing to the grim tally.
Through October, 47 people had died from illegal drug overdoses in Abbotsford. More than 30 of those deaths were recorded in the five months between June and October. (November figures haven’t yet been released).
Forty-five people perished last year, and 2017 is the deadliest to date, with 52 lives lost.
“It’s been a horrible year,” said Kari Hackett, Phoenix Society’s program director for Fraser East. (Phoenix Society and Positive Living Fraser Valley merged earlier this year.)
More people will likely have died from illegal drug overdoses by the end of 2020, than in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 combined.
The figures have been so high, for so many years, that they can be numbing, Hackett said. But she said it’s important to remember that each death is a life cut short.
“These are people’s sons, daughters, and mothers and fathers,” she said. “We work with these folks. They have hopes and dreams.”
While overdoses are stereotypically associated with visible homelessness, Hackett and public health officials have stressed that many people who use drugs, sometimes fatally, don’t fit stereotypes.
“These toxic drugs don’t care who you are. They don’t care if you’re rich, poor, housed or unhoused,” Hackett said. “We all know someone close who is at risk of overdosing.”
Across Abbotsford, the ongoing death toll has hollowed out social circles and left people reeling.
“I look forward to the day when I can stop officiating so many damn funerals,” said Jesse Wegenast, a pastor with 5 and 2 Ministries.
Wegenast estimates that he has officiated around two dozen funerals since the beginning of the overdose epidemic five years ago. Some have been large events, others small ceremonies in a non-profit’s basement.
Wegenast, who also co-ordinates Archway Community Service’s Homelessness Prevention Program, believes the pandemic has increased risks for drug users.
People using drugs alone inside private residences is the most common setting for fatal overdoses, health officials have said. And Wegenast notes that the pandemic has made people more likely to use drugs in such settings.
“With all the increasing isolation, it exacerbates people’s dependency, it exacerbates people’s anxiety,” he said.
Early on, some suggested that the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) might have been leading to more overdoses. But as those benefits have shifted to EI, there has been no obvious decrease in the number of overdose deaths. Coroners statistics suggest eight people died in Abbotsford in October alone. Across B.C., more than 1,300 people died from overdoses through the year’s first 10 months.
“I think as CERB has faded away, we are seeing it is a lot more just the human factors of depression, anxiety, loneliness and isolation,” Wegenast said.
Hackett, meanwhile, says the high number of deaths shows the need for more supports and services for people at risk of overdoses. She says this means a need for more harm-reduction services along with quicker access to treatment for those wanting help.
“There’s still a wait,” she said.
For those using drugs, Wegenast said the message is simple: despite the public health orders, people who use illegal narcotics should do so when someone else is around to help should something go wrong.
And for those who have family and friends who use drugs, “You need to keep reaching out to them … Perhaps that person you care about is more at risk during the pandemic.”
Phoenix Society is one of several local organizations that provide naloxone (narcan) kits. Hackett says thousands of kits have been distributed in recent years, but fewer people have been asking for them since the pandemic began.
Hackett stressed that the organization’s facility remains open and provides training on how to use naloxone for anyone who wishes to carry one of the life-saving kits. Training takes as little as 15 minutes and can be conducted over Zoom, if desired.
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