Penticton, B.C., is recording an average of one illicit non-fatal drug overdose per day in November, alarming health officials and harm reduction advocates in the South Okanagan community.
According to BC Emergency Health Services, the city of Penticton averages 20 calls each month for potential drug overdoses. So far this month, paramedics have responded to 18 calls.
The rash of overdoses prompted the Interior Health Authority (IHA) to issue an overdose alert on Friday.
Medical health officer Dr. Karin Goodison said drug users have recently reported ingesting what they thought was a stimulant, such as methamphetamine, but experienced an opioid overdose.
“This is quite concerning to us because if you are expecting to use a stimulant, your body has not seen opioid drugs before and so it can respond with a very significant overdose to a small dose of an opioid,” she told Global News.
Cleo Neville, harm reduction services manager with the South Okanagan Women in Need Society (SOWINS), operates a mobile outreach van and provides harm reduction services and supplies.
She said any illicit drug could be tainted with fentanyl.
“Many people who are not opioid users are experiencing an opioid overdose, so that could be people who use substances like methamphetamines or cocaine, or even benzos like Xanax that are often counterfeit at this point,” she said.
“So really, what it is bringing to light, or emphasizing, is that all substances have the potential to be contaminated with fentanyl.”
Neville said the overdose spike highlights the need for a supervised consumption site or an overdose prevention facility in Penticton.
“I think it is very concerning to be seeing this spike in overdoses, particularly because we know that Penticton and the South Okanagan is showing significant rates of overdose deaths, whereas in many communities that have overdose prevention sites or supervised consumption sites, we are often seeing a plateau or even a decrease in overdose deaths,” she said.
An Interior Health spokesperson said while discussions are underway regarding overdose prevention services in Penticton, details are unavailable and no timeline has been established for implementation.
Neville is also encouraging drug users to utilize SOWINS’ drug testing services. It is the only agency in the South Okanagan that can test illicit substances to determine what’s actually in them.
“We would really love to see an increase in the use of our drug checking services. At this point I think a barrier to it or an approach that would increase the uptake of the fentanyl testing is if people were able to take the strips home with them… so that they could be doing their own testing,” she said.
Goodison advises drug users to remain extra vigilant.
“Any illegal drug can contain anything in it so don’t use alone — get a buddy with you, get your drug tested.
“Another thing is to use a test dose so people can take a small amount of their drug first, wait to see what kind of an impact they are getting from that and cease to use the rest of the drug if they are experiencing unexpected results from that drug.”
BCEHS said paramedics have responded to 218 calls to a suspected drug overdose in Penticton so far this year. In 2018, the ambulance service responded to 263 calls, compared to 220 calls in 2017 and 157 calls in 2016.
However, responding to overdose calls is only a small part of the many patients responses in Penticton, equating to about four per cent of call volume to BC Ambulance.
According to the BC Coroners Service, Penticton has reported 12 illicit drug toxicity deaths through the first eight months of 2019, which is an average of 1.5 deaths per month.
The number of OD deaths is comparable to 2018 when 16 people died of a suspected drug overdose in Penticton and 2017 when 14 deaths occurred.
Interior Health said Penticton is one of the hardest hit communities in the region in terms of overdose deaths.
In October, IHA launched a #NaloxoneChallenge campaign in Penticton and so far three businesses have participated. They are trained in how to administer Naloxone and provided with a free kit, and challenge other organizations to do the same.
In Penticton, naloxone kits and training are available at:
- Martin St. Outreach-Primary Care Clinic: 117 – 437 Martin St.
- Pathways Addictions Resource Centre: 1 – 996 Main St.
- Penticton Health Centre: 160 – 740 Carmi Ave.
- Snxastwilxtn Centre: 198 Outma Sqilxw Place
- SOWINS Mobile Outreach Van call or text 250-809-7054