911 calls for a drug overdose rose 8.8 percent in Vancouver last year, signalling the crisis continues with no end in sight

B.C. first responders are getting very good at preventing overdoses from ending in death, but that doesn't mean the province's opioid epidemic has gotten any less severe

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      The number of fatal overdoses recorded in Vancouver last year was down considerably from the two years previous.

      Based on the first 10 months of data, there were a projected 252 illicit-drug overdose deaths across the city in 2019. That’s compared to 395 in 2018 and 375the year before that.

      Roughly a one-third decline, according to B.C. Coroners Service (BCCS) statistics Good news, to be sure. But Vancouver’s overdose crisis is far from over. By another measure, in fact, the emergency is still only getting worse.

      Last year in Vancouver, there were 8,589 calls to 911 for a drug overdose, according to B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) data shared with the Straight.

      In sharp contrast to the trend observed in fatal overdoses in 2019, emergency calls for an overdose did not decline. They rose 8.8 percent from the number received the previous year.

      In 2018, there were 7,895 calls and in 2017, there were 7,939. (Going back further, in 2015, there were just 3,055 calls to 911 for a drug overdose.)

      One small neighborhood was responsible for an astounding percentage of those calls: the Downtown Eastside. In 2019, Vancouver's poorest community accounted for 62 percent or nearly two-thirds of all overdose calls recorded across the city.

      Travis Lupick / B.C. Coroners Service

      What’s more, 911 calls for overdoses are rising faster in Vancouver than they are in other areas of the province. Calls for all of B.C. also rose last year, but only by two percent compared to Vancouver’s 8.8 percent.

      “Paramedics continue to be called to an incredibly high number of overdoses across the province,” reads a January 8 BCEHS update on the situation.

      “In 2019, Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria remained the top three communities in terms of overdose calls,” it continues. “Both Surrey and Victoria had slightly lower overdose call numbers in 2019, compared to 2018; Vancouver was slightly up.”

      In Vancouver and, to a lesser extent, across all of B.C., the ratio of overdoses to fatal overdoses is beginning to improve.

      More people are experiencing a drug overdose. More often than ever before, someone in B.C. ingests drugs, their respiratory system slows, they stop breathing, and oxygen ceases to reach their brain. But we’re getting better at preventing those overdoses from ending in death.

      To see overdose deaths decline while emergency calls rise is a remarkable accomplishment. But, six year’s into B.C.’s opioid epidemic, it does not mean that there is any end to this crisis in sight.