More people have died of illicit drug overdoses in Nanaimo this year, than any other in the last decade, new statistics from the B.C. Coroners Service show.
There is a drug overdose crisis in the city, according to health, educational and service agency representatives who gathered Tuesday to shine a light on the issue, strides taken to address it and what’s needed, including talks about a safe consumption site.
New statistics from the coroners service show there have been 23 deaths between January and the end of October.
The highest number of illicit drug overdose deaths the city previously saw was 20 for the whole of 2013. The coroners service also reports 20 fentanyl-detected deaths between January and Sept. 30, up from nine last year and 12 in 2014. Island Health reports that for every death, there are 20 to 30 visits to the emergency room for non-fatal overdoses.
Matt Brown, regional coroner, who participated in the forum Tuesday, said he has never seen drug overdose deaths at this level. He said B.C. Ambulance and the fire department in Nanaimo deploy naloxone, the antidote for opioids on the same people in the same shift. He said it’s frightening.
“Last December, that’s when things changed and you see it with great regularity not only on the Island but across the province,” said Brown, who added this year in B.C. rates of overdose are higher per 100,000 population than any other unnatural death, for example suicide, motor vehicle incidents and homicide.
“You see the impact to families and communities. The amount of resources that’s involved in trying to keep people alive. It’s incredible and it’s very sad, it’s very tragic.”
The Nanaimo Overdose Prevention and Management Working Group, made up of service agencies, RCMP, B.C. Coroners Service and health and education professionals are working together to address the overdose issue, and hosted the forum so the community could ask questions.
Most of the 50 people who turned out were associated in some way to the response occurring in the community, which is maybe a reassuring sign that the work is getting done and there’s going to be more work, said Dr. Paul Hasselback, Island Health medical services officer for the central Island.
But he also doesn’t think people should be afraid to ask questions or communicate concerns.
“We will not make progress as a community if we don’t have an open dialogue,” he said, adding that part of what he was hoping to show at the forum was that progress is happening on a lot of fronts.
There’s a new integrated drug prevention curriculum at the school district, public awareness campaign and work to expand detox beds. The Nanaimo RCMP continues to focus on fentanyl and there has been an expansion of access to naloxone.
Griffin Russell, harm reduction coordinator for Island Health, said about 18 months ago there were seven take-home naloxone kits across Vancouver Island and one in Nanaimo, and today there are 70.
Hasselback still sees areas to work on, like better implementation of resources in schools, street outreach and treatment. He also said supervised consumption is something that needs to be looked at for Nanaimo.
He said the B.C. government has given direction that by either the end of the calendar or fiscal year, there will be one new supervised consumption site in every health authority. Island Health has reported this week it’s looking at a multi-site model for Victoria where people can have a safe and clean environment to inject drugs. The working group has approached the city’s public safety committee about the overdose issue, and city staff members plan to create a synopsis of services and support in Nanaimo and consider where a safe consumption site would fit. There’s currently no zoning for a safe consumption site.
“We do need to have this conversation about supervised consumption in the community an I think we’ve initiated that,” said Hasselback.
-with files from Kendra Wong/Black Press