Nine people died of drug overdoses in Vancouver Thursday night, many of them in the vicinity of the Downtown Eastside, with four more deaths elsewhere in B.C.
As of the end of November, 160 overdose deaths were investigated by Vancouver Police officers with 31 of them taking place last month alone. In comparison, there were just 67 overdose deaths in Vancouver in 2012.
The City of Vancouver said there was one overdose death a day in November.
VPD Chief Cst. Adam Palmer said the Downtown Eastside is not the only area where overdoses deaths are on the rise.
“We are seeing a record number of overdose deaths in neighbourhoods all around Vancouver and it’s getting worse.”
Palmer said there were 11 homicides in Vancouver this year and 15 people died from motor-vehicle accidents.
“Other than natural causes, can you imagine nine people dying from any other cause in one day in our city?” said Palmer.
He said first responders and police are making progress on prevention, harm reduction and enforcement, but failing when it comes to treatment.
“The fentanyl crisis is bringing a new level of urgency to adjust the lack of detox and treatment options available to people. We need a longer term strategy to help people in crisis,” said Palmer.
There are an estimated 1,300 people in Vancouver who use illicit opioids every day and aren’t getting treatment, the City said Friday.
Palmer said they often run into situations where there is no space available in detox programs for people wanting to fight their addiction.
“When someone is ready to get off drugs, we need to help them right away as they are at risk of dying if we don’t help them.”
Even if someone is fortunate enough to get into a detox program, Palmer said they need to be moved into a treatment and recovery program, where spaces are equally as unavailable.
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Palmer said they sometimes end up finding detox and treatment spots for Vancouver-based addicts in places as far away as Armstrong and Nanaimo.
“We want a long-term health plan that does more that just revive people temporarily and sends them back into the streets to continue with their addiction,” he said. “We want treatment on demand.”
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said the amount of treatment available for people suffering from severe addictions in the city is woefully inadequate.
Robertson is calling on the B.C. government to commit significant investments in treatment to help people break the cycle of addiction in a timely fashion.
The mayor said there is only one clinic that currently provides opioid replacement therapy in Vancouver and serves 125 people a day.
“It is desperate times in Vancouver right now, and it’s hard to see any silver lining right now when we don’t seem to have hit rock bottom with the number of people dying on any given day from an overdose,” said Robertson. “There is no magic fix to this. We have to act on all levels.”
Vancouver Fire Chief John McKearney said the opioid epidemic has led to longer waits for other calls.
“It’s taken a toll on all responders,” he said. “The mayor and myself did a ride along the week before last. I will tell you that my perception of what our firefighters were encountering was nowhere close to what they actually are encountering. We have taken steps to help with the occupational stress they are going through.”
Public Safety Minister Mike Morris said the province is committed to addressing the problem with the goal of opening 500 substance-use beds by early 2017.
In an unprecedented move in April, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall declared a public health emergency after a significant increase in drug overdoses. Even though overdose numbers have been raising across the country, British Columbia became the first province to take this kind of action in response to a public health crisis.
Meanwhile, Vancouver’s Celebrities nightclub will be hosting a free narcan training workshop on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. More information is avaialable here.
– With files from The Canadian Press