Island health issues alert after surge in overdoses

NANAIMO – Island Health sees surge in overdoses in the last 48 hours, issues warning to drug users.

Island Health has issued an alert in Nanaimo as the city experiences a surge in drug overdoses.

The health authority planned to alert injection drug users in Nanaimo on Friday, after hearing reports of a dozen overdoses within the previous 48 hours.

Dr. Paul Hasselback, Island Health’s chief medical officer for central Vancouver Island, said he was still getting information and he did not know if there were any deaths, but called a dozen overdoses a fairly significant increase and said informal information suggests there’s some link by use of the same product. It gives Island Health a “fair bit of confidence” something different has gotten out into the community, he said.

There had been fewer than two overdoses per day in Nanaimo before the recent spike in activity, which was already up over 2015, according to Hasselback.

The problem of overdoses and overdose deaths are being tackled by a local task force and the province.

There were 371 drug overdose deaths in the first half of the year, prompting declaration of a public health emergency in the spring, and the B.C. Coroners Service reported 15 overdose deaths in Nanaimo between January and the end of May.

The province recently announced the creation of a new joint task force on overdose response, stating in a press release that B.C. is experiencing an “unprecedented rise in overdoses.” The task force will provide leadership and advice to the province on actions to prevent and respond to overdoses in B.C.

The province wants Ottawa to make it easier to create new supervised consumption sites in B.C. and Premier Christy Clark is urging the federal government to restrict access to pill presses and tableting machines, currently legal to possess. In Nanaimo, Hasselback said a surveillance network is being completed and the health authority is considering what can be done for people who have had non-fatal overdoses.

He says there are a “whole bunch” of urgent things that need to be undertaken, including opiate substitution, more harm reduction and more naloxone. He also considers safe consumption sites as one of the necessary steps and said there have been conversations about it in Nanaimo, by city administration, RCMP, mental health and community agencies.

“I don’t think we are anywhere close to suggesting that we’ve beaten this in any fashion. We’re just starting to get a handle on how we might be able to beat it in the future,” he said.

The recent alert will go to agencies with access to injection drug users to inform them about the spike in activity, and to remind them to call 911 if someone is overdosing and administer naloxone.

Asked if recent overdoses are linked to fentanyl, Hasselback said just about everything seen in the last six months has been fentanyl.

-files from Jeff Nagel/Black Press