B.C. paramedics, dispatchers responded to record-setting 35,525 overdose calls in 2021

Click to play video: 'Overdose calls increased across B.C. in 2021'
Overdose calls increased across B.C. in 2021
B.C.'s already strained emergency health services, facing additional pressure, from the record number of overdose calls. New figures show a significant spike in volume across the province. And as Catherine Urquhart reports, this is prompting renewed calls for access to safer supply – Jan 12, 2022

Paramedics and medical dispatchers in B.C. responded to a record-setting 35,525 overdose calls last year.

It’s an increase of 31 per cent from 2020, said BC Emergency Health Services in a Wednesday news release.

Surrey saw the greatest increase with a total of 3,674 calls — 50 per cent more than 2020.

“They have to make sure that they don’t partake in this alone,” said paramedic Brian Twaites.

“They need to have somebody with them so that if that horrible situation of an actual overdose happens, somebody is able to phone 911.”

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Overdose calls have “steadily increased” during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to BCEHS, and every health region in the province reported an increase in 2021.

There were 10,573 calls in Fraser Health, a leap of 45 per cent, and 11,204 calls in Vancouver Coastal Health, an increase of 24 per cent.

Calls in Island Health increased by 32 per cent with 5,917 altogether, and by 29 per cent in Interior Health with 5,417 in total.

The Northern Health region saw the smallest increase — 16 per cent — or 2,414 calls.

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The numbers are simultaneously “shocking” and “not surprising,” said Guy Felicella, peer clinical adviser for the BC Centre on Substance Use.

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“The level of the drug toxicity in the province of British Columbia is increasingly getting worse year after year,” he explained.

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“It’s an unregulated drug supply, which really shows you that the lack of access to a safer supply of drugs has created this nightmare that we’ve been in since 2016.”

According to BCEHS, only two communities had a decrease in overdose calls last year.

Fort St. John had 97 calls, down 22 per cent from 2020, and Quesnel had 157, down 25 per cent.

Courtenay, Cranbook and Mission had increases above the provincial average, at 127 per cent, 84 per cent and 82 per cent, respectively.

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‘Safer’ drug supply runs into red tape

“We need to have immediate access for people who are accessing illicit substances to be able to access safer substances,” said Felicella, naming heroin specifically.

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“You don’t need a prescription to buy a bottle of alcohol, you shouldn’t need a prescription to access substances either.”

It’s important to note not all people who use illicit substances have addictions or substance use disorders, he added, just like not all who buy from liquor stores are alcoholics.

In December, the province reported that October 2021 was its worst month on record for suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths, with 201 altogether. That September was also the 12th consecutive month with 150 or more overdose deaths.

The BC Coroners Service said the 1,782 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths between January and October were the highest ever recorded in a calendar year.

In its budget released in April 2021, the province allocated $500-million to mental health and addictions services.

In recent months, it has announced expanded addictions medicine teams in the Fraser Health area, added specialized addictions treatment beds in Surrey, and expanded virtual care.

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