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‘We are literally seeing people die before our eyes’: Toxic drugs continue to take toll on Okanagan

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The number of people who have died by drug overdose has continued to grow in the Okanagan through 2022, renewing calls for more to be done to curb the deadly trend.

Figures released from the BC Coroner’s Service show that from January until the end of February this year, there were 382 overdose deaths in the province and, of these, 30 were in the Okanagan.

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Broken down further, the coroner’s service said 13 deaths were in Kelowna and eight were in Penticton. If nothing changes, both cities, like the province in general, are on track for the deadliest year of the toxic drug crisis.

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The alarming trend comes of no surprise to Angie Lohr, the executive director of HOPE Outreach. Nightly, her teams hit the streets to hand out supplies to those who are on the front lines of the crisis.

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“The drug supply has been tainted for quite a few years and I’m really shocked that the federal government or provincial government isn’t reacting (as much) to this as they reacted to COVID,” Lohr said.

“We are literally seeing people die before our eyes and having to, thankfully, Narcan them back.”

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The toxicity of fentanyl detected in drugs has also increased. Amy MacDonald, FTIR drug checking technician with ASK Wellness Society and licensed practical nurse, said she has noticed this upward trend while testing the South Okanagan drug supply.

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“Absolutely I am seeing those higher concentrations of fentanyl as well as benzodiazepines further complicating any type of overdose,” said MacDonald.

“The concern is that without a regulated drug supply, the drugs that we are finding have such different amounts of fentanyl.”

Lohr said with the lack of detox beds, housing and treatment options available, the drug trade has people “held hostage. “

“People are almost in a hopeless state,” she said.

Lohr also said that using drugs is a byproduct of trauma so many people are coping with.

“If we don’t deal with those issues and offer people a way out … it’s really hard to believe that this problem is going to go away any time soon,” she said.

To that end, Interior Health announced Tuesday that it is introducing new outpatient withdrawal management services in four communities and a new virtual option to make accessing care easier across the region.

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“When people with substance use challenges make the courageous decision to reach out for help, there need to be services to meet them where they are at,” Sheila Malcolmson, minister of mental health and addictions, said in a press release.

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“With new outpatient withdrawal management options across the Interior, more people will be able to access the help they need – faster. This is just one step as our government continues to build a comprehensive and seamless continuum of mental health and addictions care that works for all British Columbians.”

The outpatient model means a person doesn’t need to be admitted to a facility to receive withdrawal support. Instead, patients will receive care, including the prescribing of medications as required, in their own home.

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“Each person’s experience with addiction, and path to recovery, is unique,” said Interior Health president and CEO Susan Brown. “Interior Health is pleased to be expanding outpatient withdrawal services, and we are committed to supporting people across the region in their recovery journeys.”

In addition to creating a regional virtual addiction medicine clinic, new outpatient withdrawal management teams will run seven days a week in Penticton, Kamloops, Vernon and Kelowna.

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The new nursing positions have been posted and recruitment is ongoing. Services will be implemented as staff is hired and trained, with service starts anticipated by summer 2022.

These new outpatients programs are in addition to expanded services in the North Okanagan, five new youth withdrawal management beds recently awarded in Kamloops, 22 adult withdrawal beds to serve people across the Okanagan, Integrated Treatment Teams to provide multidisciplinary outreach to people who need flexible support, and growing access to opioid agonist treatment through IH’s nurse prescriber program.

For information on substance use services in Interior Health, visit interiorhealth.ca or call 310-MHSU (6478).

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