Three years after an unprecedented move by B.C.’s chief medical health officer, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside remains ground zero of the opioid epidemic.
“We’re still in a crisis. People are dying every day,” said Trey Helten, a peer supervisor with the Overdose Prevention Society (OPS).
The public health emergency declared by Dr. Perry Kendall on Apr. 14, 2016 over the soaring number of drug overdose deaths, still persists today.
“I don’t even know how many people I know have died anymore, I can’t even count,” said Sarah Blyth, executive director of the OPS.
“It’s really very sad. It’s very difficult to even fathom that this is going on.”
According to the BC Coroners Service, 993 people died of illicit drug overdoses in 2016. In 2017, that number jumped by nearly 50 per cent to 1,487. In 2018, overdoses claimed 1,489 lives in B.C.
The City of Vancouver recorded 233 fatal overdoses in 2016, 376 in 2017, and 382 in 2018 for a total of 991 deaths in the three year period.
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With the death toll driven by fentanyl and carfentanil tainted product, front line workers believe the solution lies in a safe drug supply.
Since September 2016, volunteers with the Overdose Prevention Society have been using naloxone to reverse the lethal effects of overdoses.
“We’ve been able to save thousands of lives but people continue to die,” said Blyth.
Others like Mark Bodie, who lost his 17-year-old son Jack to an accidental overdose in August 2015, say the focus on harm reduction isn’t working.
“We’re reviving people and letting them loose to die another day,” said Bodie, who has met a man whose son has been brought back to life 37 times.
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“There was no substance to the strategy behind the emergency.”
Jack Bodie was one of many recreational users who died after unknowingly taking drugs laced with fentanyl. His father is pushing for more harm prevention, including increased education, and immediate access to addiction treatment.
“If you don’t do anything about the emergency, the emergency will continue,” Bodie told Global News.
Since Apr. 14, 2016, emergency powers have allowed health officials to collect real time data on overdoses from front-line workers, including paramedics and emergency room doctors so that when they see a pattern, resources can be immediately deployed to warn and protect drug users.
When asked what has changed since the start of the public health emergency and what progress has been made in preventing overdose deaths, B.C.’s minister of mental health and addictions said “there is no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all solution to this crisis.”
In a statement to Global News, Judy Darcy praised front line workers for saving 4,700 lives since the beginning of “one of the worst public health emergencies our province has ever faced.”
“Every month, every week, and every day counts, and we continue to scale up our response in B.C. to save more lives and connect more people to the mental health and addictions supports they need and deserve,” read the statement.
But Bodie disagrees.
“In reality as evidenced by the increasing number of deaths, nothing has been done,” he said.