Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside entered a new and more intense phase of the opioid crisis last winter, one that was characterized by significantly more overdoses beyond the increase that had already occurred before 2016.
That picture emerges from B.C. Emergency Health Services data supplied at the Straight’s request. It covers 911 calls for suspected overdoses in what is often described as ground zero for the drug epidemic: the two-block stretch of East Hastings Street that runs from Carrall Street to Main Street.
The statistics show that during the first six months of 2016, paramedics and firefighters were very busy responding to overdose calls there, at an average of 49 each month.
Then, in September of that year, the number of calls jumped to 103, and it continued to rise, to a peak of 262 in November 2016.
A downward trend followed. For the first six months of 2017, calls declined but still averaged 180 per month.
Then the situation appears to have settled. During the last six months of 2017, there was an average of 125 overdose calls each month. That’s far lower than the peak of 262 but still more than double the average for the first six months of 2016.
Brian Twaites is an advanced-care paramedic who works for the B.C. Ambulance Service in the Downtown Eastside. “Did we expect it to get worse?” he asked in a telephone interview. “We didn’t think it would, but it did. And so we’ve carried on and dealt with it the best we can.”
In addition to call volumes, he noted that calls are more intense.
Twaites also called attention to the total number of calls, noting “compassion fatigue” has become an issue.
During the two years for which the Straight was supplied numbers, these two blocks of East Hastings Street saw 3,004 calls for suspected overdoses (compared to 42,716 for all of B.C.).
Twaites said the provincial government has come through with additional resources.
B.C. Emergency Health Services received $5 million in new provincial funding in November 2016 and, in January 2018, hired 10 full-time and eight part-time paramedics. It is also in the process of adding 20 paramedic specialists, who provide clinical and technical support.
“We are getting more paramedic units out on the road, and we’ve developed a resilience course for occupation stress,” Twaites said.
According to the B.C. Coroners Service, 1,422 people in British Columbia died of an illicit-drug overdose last year, up from 993 in 2016, 518 in 2015, and 369 in 2014. Fentanyl, carfentanil, and analogs were associated with 81 percent of deaths in 2017.
The two blocks examined by the Straight host two of the city’s busiest supervised-consumption facilities, where people can bring drugs to use under staff supervision. The 100 block is home to North America’s first supervised-injection facility, Insite, and 62 East Hastings is the address for Vancouver’s first overdose-prevention site (a stripped-down injection site).
In a telephone interview, the latter’s founder and manager, Sarah Blyth, suggested the situation may not have improved as much as the stats suggest. She explained the declines in numbers observed since last winter could be the result of staff doing a better job responding to overdoses before they require a call to 911. Many potential overdoses can be avoided simply by engaging someone who took drugs in a way that keeps them conscious, Blyth said.
“We’re still in a crisis,” she added. “Yesterday, we had four overdoses. So it’s still a crisis. Fentanyl is everywhere.”