It wasn’t even 9 a.m. last Thursday (November 17) before Galen Rigter found someone overdosing outside the Maple Hotel, where he works for the nonprofit Portland Hotel Society (PHS).
“I was doing chest compressions and had to give them a shot of Narcan,” he recounted at the Downtown Eastside hotel.
Richter saved the man’s life using the so-called overdose antidote, distributed in Vancouver under the generic name naloxone.
So far this year, 124 people have died of illicit-drug overdoses in Vancouver, compared to 134 during all of 2015 and 100 the year before that.
Across B.C., 622 people have died that way this year. The dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl has turned up in 60 percent of those deaths, making this the deadliest year yet in an epidemic of illicit-drug overdose deaths that began in 2010.
Rigter has had a front-row seat. He works at what is likely the busiest needle-distribution point anywhere in North America: a small window that faces an alley off East Hastings near the intersection of Main Street.
In a separate interview at the Maple Hotel, PHS head of housing, community, and peer development, Coco Culbertson, unveiled a new program designed to meet what she described as an obvious need for wider access to naloxone and other harm-reduction services.
“It’s called Spikes on Bikes,” she said, “innovated out of a need for a bridge between overdose response, recovery, and distribution of harm-reduction supplies, as we saw things in the community become busier.”
The program will see PHS employees work in pairs on bicycles, riding around the Downtown Eastside while equipped with naloxone and a mandate to respond to drug overdoses.
They’ll also distribute naloxone to drug users who are not experiencing an overdose but who might need it later, and they will conduct training sessions on how to respond to an overdose and use naloxone effectively. The cyclists will also collect used syringes and respond to commercial businesses in the area that report dirty needles to city hall.
Funded by Vancouver Coastal Health, Spikes on Bikes officially launches on Tuesday (November 22). During a five-month trial period, it’s scheduled to see one pair of bikes on the streets from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on select days of the week. Those are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, three weeks of the month, and Wednesdays to Saturdays during the week of the month when welfare checks are issued.
Culbertson said that for now, the program employs 12 past and present drug users recruited from Insite (Vancouver's sanctioned supervised-injection facility), the Drug User Resource Centre, and other programs PHS runs around the Downtown Eastside.
“We can train anyone in overdose management,” Culbertson said, “but we can’t train them to have the tolerance, insight, and expertise that these guys have when it comes to how to engage people on the street, especially in the alleys.”
On the morning of the program’s soft launch (November 18), its first pair of cyclists shared stores of overdoses they’ve responded to in the recent past.
Cori Wilson works at the same needle-distribution point at the Maple Hotel.
“I came in and before 45 minutes—I didn’t even have my jacket off—I had three [overdoses],” she told the Straight. “Then I’m running across [East Hastings Street] because there’s another one in the back alley behind Carnegie [Community Centre]. And so I’m running over there to respond, running across the street, dodging traffic. So it was four.”
Brie Leaber told a similar story from one afternoon when she was working at the window last October.
“I had to Narcan her twice before she came back,” she said. “Here in the alley. I was on a window shift and some guy came up and said, ‘We need Narcan out here’. So I ran out and Narcan’d her.”
A couple of hours after those interviews, but still before noon, Culbertson called to report on how the program went during the first morning of its soft launch.
“Already they’ve given out six naloxone kits and done six trainings in the alleys,” she said. “It’s insane.”