Drug-related overdose are on the rise in the city, according to Montreal police.
In the last year alone, overdose deaths have more than doubled from 28 fatalaties in 2019, to 64 in 2020.
Benoît Garneau, chief of service for Urgences-santé, said paramedics have also seen an increase in overdose-related calls.
“In 2020, we had 270 calls where paramedics had to administer naloxone to patients, compared to 146 in 2019,” he said.
Naloxone, which is also known as Narcan commercially, can counter the effects of an opioid overdose, especially decreased breathing.
In October of 2020, more than 3,000 officers within the Montreal police service were trained to use the life-saving drug.
According to Michel Bourque, who heads the police force’s organized crime section, as first responders, officers need to think of overdoses as a health issue.
“We’re not looking at this this aspect as a criminal element, and the reason why we are focusing on preventing and helping citizens that are in this situation of overdose is basically to do a combined effort with Urgences-santé, ourselves being front-line workers,” he said.
Since the beginning of November, the force has been equipped with 174 naloxone kits.
Bourque said the kits are already making a difference.
“We’ve had at this point 12 interventions that we’ve done and very shortly after we introduced naloxone kits to our officers, already one person, his life was saved through this intervention,” he said.
Bourque said many factors have likely contributed to the increase in overdose deaths, including underlying health issues exacerbated by the pandemic, an increase in use of certain types of recreational drugs and even the hot summer months.
And while 2020 saw an increase in overdoses, some fear things could get worse.
According to the executive director of Cactus, a community organization that does prevention work with drug users, there have already been two fatal overdoses since the start of the year less than two weeks ago.
“One person that we found dead on the streets and the other that was reported to us,” said Jean-François Mary.
Mary said the fear is that people will not be able to access services as easily, now that a provincewide curfew to stem the spread of COVID-19 is underway.
“People will be more isolated than they were before the curfew, and that will result in many more deaths,” he said.
Charlene Vacon said outfitting police with naloxone kits is a step in the right direction, but argues more needs to be done.
Vacon, a paramedic, lost her son after he took a fatal dose of fentanyl at a Montreal bar in 2009.
“The police came. They didn’t have naloxone,” Vacon said.
While naloxone kits can be had for free at the pharmacy, Vacon says it’s not as simple as that.
“At the same time, we’re seeing now in the winter people that are homeless, people that are not well housed, are not in stable situations. Getting access to that free naloxone is not the same for everyone,” she said.
She wants to see a wider distribution of naloxone to the public.
“Public health has them, but we need to get them into the people’s hands who are needing them,” she said.
Vacon said paramedics could potentially play a role.
“Let’s say, where someone has overdosed and they’ve given naloxone to the patient, why not leave some naloxone with the patient or with their loved ones? Because obviously, this is a situation that we don’t want to repeat.“
— With files from Global News’ Phil Carpenter