Owen MUNRO – Abbotsford News
Fraser Health is designating the Riverside Winter Shelter a temporary overdose prevention service as it looks to stem an unprecedented amount of deaths due to illicit drug overdoses.
The ongoing crisis took a grim turn in November, taking the lives of 128 people across the province last month. The Fraser Health region has seen almost 35 per cent of the province’s drug deaths this year, with 259 fatalities giving the region the highest number of overdoses in B.C. this year.
“This will bring comprehensive emergency measures to some of the high-risk areas where we’re seeing a real need for help,” Fraser Health chief medical health officer Dr. Victoria Lee said.
Lee notes that decisions are largely made through the data they receive from hospitals, ambulance records and shelters. The service is not the same as a safe consumption site like the two facilities announced for Surrey on Dec. 6. But Lee says depending on a feasibility study, Abbotsford could realistically see a site soon.
Deaths due to illicit drugs tripled in the Fraser Health Authority region compared to October, with Abbotsford recording four deaths in the last month. Abbotsford has been one of the hardest hit municipalities this year, with a total of 32 deaths, now tied for fifth-most in the province along with Kamloops.
Shayne Williams, executive director of the Lookout Emergency Aid Society, said last week that seven overdoses were reversed by the use of naloxone in 2016. Staff at the facility are trained to administer naloxone, which reverses the symptoms of an opioid overdose. There have been no deaths at the local shelter since it opened. A total of 360 overdoses have been reversed with naloxone so far this year at, and in areas surrounding, Lookout’s 34 B.C. facilities.
Dr. Lee said that the new prevention services aim to provide a larger variety of options for people looking to stop abusing illicit drugs like heroin, offering more readily available treatment options for those patients.
While Fraser Health has been trying to combat the recent wave of overdoses through initiatives like Opioid Substitution Therapy (OST) there appears to be no end in sight for the dangers opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil present.
The province’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe called the potential of carfentanil – a drug said to be 100 times stronger than fentanyl – being introduced to the mainstream drug supply “terrifying.” Dr. Lee believes that data will point to carfentanil as a major reason behind November’s spike in deaths, but also said that data from hospitals like the Abbotsford Regional Hospital indicate the death toll won’t be as high as it was in November.
By the end of December, the B.C. government expects to have 18 “overdose prevention sites” open in high-risk areas, including Victoria, Kamloops and Vancouver.
Health Minister Terry Lake issued an emergency order Dec. 9 to open the new supervised sites without permission from the federal government.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall pleaded with affected communities to stop their protests against overdose prevention sites. The supervised sites will save lives, “and what they will not do is bring problems into communities,” because the drugs and users are already there, Kendall said.
– with files from Tom Fletcher and Tyler Olsen