Winnipeg opioid crisis taking lives, taxing resources, say WFPS: ‘This is the reality’

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Winnipeg opioid crisis taking lives, taxing resources, say WFPS: ‘This is the reality’
Opioid use and misuse is on the rise and setting new records in Winnipeg. Global News reporter Joe Scarpelli goes on an exclusive ride-along – Sep 1, 2021

At 7:52 p.m. Monday night, Michelle Bessas was en route to the first call of her shift.

Bessas, district chief of paramedic operations for the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service (WFPS), was heading to the St. Boniface neighbourhood after bystanders found an unconscious man.

The man had overdosed and required two doses of Narcan — or naloxone, a drug used to revive opioid overdoses – to wake up.

Read more: Drug overdose deaths spiked 87 per cent in Manitoba last year

He told Bessas in the ambulance that he’d tried ‘down,’ another word for fentanyl, for the first time.

“Typically he takes a few hits of meth and he didn’t realize you can’t do that with fentanyl or any other sort of opioid because it affects your respiratory drive and you become unconscious,” Bessas later told Global News.

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Captain Wayne King was first on scene with his crew. He said the man was lucky bystanders spotted him and called 911 when they did.

“We were able to get in there before things got any worse,” King said.

Read more: Man douses himself with lighter fluid, takes meth, asks officers to shoot him: Winnipeg police

Opioid misuse is currently the worst it’s ever been in Winnipeg, according to numbers from the WFPS.

As of Aug. 30, WFPS responded to 1,141 suspected opioid overdoses — almost as many as the 1,226 total for 2020 — and well above the 398 reported in 2019 and 198 in 2018.

So far this year, WFPS has administered naloxone more than 2,000 times to nearly 1,300 people.

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After Bessas was cleared of her first opioid overdose call of the night, she was dispatched to a meth-related call.

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A man on meth was arrested by police for assault and required an assessment.

A meth user’s demeanor can change with little notice, Bessas notes.

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“Are you going to stay nice and calm and be cooperative?” Bessas asked the man in handcuffs. “I Just want to make sure everybody is safe, that’s all.”

Once the man was determined to be stable, he was taken to the police station by officers.

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Meth-related calls to WPFS have been high for several years and still account for more calls for service than those for opioids.

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In 2019, crews responded to 1,479 meth-related calls. As of the end of August, there have been 1,295 calls.

Alcohol-related calls, however, continue to keep crews busiest.

Read more: COVID-19 preventing addicts from accessing some services

In the last five years, there have been anywhere from 4,300 to 6,400 calls for intoxicated people annually.

‘Clearly she’s not getting the help that she needs’

A call relating to alcohol abuse was where Bessas was headed next.

An intoxicated woman with mental health issues needed to be sedated at a sobering facility.

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Naloxone use in Winnipeg

Inside the facility, the woman was clearly in distress.

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“Is that her head hitting the door?” Bessas asked one of the workers inside.

After nearly an hour of banging her head against the door, the woman was safely sedated and taken to the hospital.

Bessas happened to know the patient from previous calls.

“Clearly she’s not getting the help that she needs yet because we keep interacting with her, unfortunately,” Bessas said.

Read more: Manitoba on pace to exceed drug-overdose deaths in 2021

Yet another call for another patient was sadly too late.

A young woman in her 20s was found unconscious, but before Bessas arrived, another WFPS member determined that she was already dead from what appeared to be an opioid overdose.

There was still time to save the life of the next patient, thankfully. Bessas rushed to the home of a man in his 30 who was in cardiac arrest after taking fentanyl.

“Wake up … wake up,” first responders could be heard saying to the man.

It took two doses of naloxone, but the man did wake up.

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He was taken away in an ambulance shortly after 10 p.m. It was the fifth call for substance abuse in just over two hours.

“And we missed several (other calls),” Bessas said.

Michelle Bessas, District Chief of Paramedic Operations for the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic service, poses for a picture outside Station 11. Joe Scarpelli/Global News

Opioid crisis the worst it has ever been

Her colleague, Advanced Care Paramedic Practitioner Don Narine, picked up some of those other calls.

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“The use of opioids right now seems to be at the highest I’ve ever seen it,” Narine said, who has been on the job for 21 years.

Read more: First clients move in to Bruce Oake Recovery Centre

Bessas, also said she’s dealing with more overdoses than ever before in her 19-year career.

She said overdoses are happening in every corner of the city, impacting people from all walks of life.

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“Our health-care system is struggling, we’re struggling with paramedic resources, they’re struggling in hospital emergency rooms and substance misuse calls account for a lot of people that we have to treat,” Bessas said.

“This is the reality that we have here in Winnipeg right now.”

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Read more: ‘We’re good human beings’: Drug addiction recovery centre opens in Winnipeg

That said, the statistics shared above likely don’t paint an accurate picture of the situation.

That’s because WFPS records data by the chief complaint — the patient’s description of events. If the patient, or caller, doesn’t accurately describe symptoms — or what drug they’ve been taking — that information is often not included in the reporting system.

As Bessas says, it’s bad enough on paper, but it is even worse in reality.

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