Reported drug overdoses represent people’s final, but not always first, tragic experiences with drugs.
While the BC Coroners Service reports that 12 people died in the Grand Forks local health area from illicit drug overdoses between 2018 and 2020 – including one person in June 2020 – outreach, health and support workers say that there are many more near-misses that go unmentioned.
“The numbers are quite staggering, and these are [only] the ones that I know of,” said Barney Bennett, an outreach worker with ASK Wellness who has been tasked with supporting vulnerable people in the Grand Forks area through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s some that I don’t even know of – the potential for overdose with the drugs that are around nowadays is high.”
Across the province, fatal encounters with drugs are spiking again, not quite four years into B.C.’s declared public health emergency on opioid-related overdose deaths.
In June 2020, 175 people died from overdoses in B.C., surpassing May’s previous record of 171. The crisis has touched families in the Boundary as well. Where four people in the Grand Forks and Kettle Valley local health areas died of overdoses between 2010 and 2015, 18 people have died in the region since 2016 – eight in 2018 alone.
The local drug supply has grown more poisonous too, according to Bennett and fellow support workers. Drug testing from ANKORS has found increasingly dangerous substances are being cut into stimulants and depressants alike now, threatening dependent and recreational drug users. On July 22, ANKORS released its latest drug alert after testing found “extremely toxic concentrations of fentanyl in light green powdered or pebbly substance.”
“Those people that are buying a stimulant, they’re not expecting [something like fentanyl] to be in there, and they drop because they have no tolerance at all,” said Tonya Robitaille, Aboriginal Health Co-ordinator with the Circle of Indigenous Nations Society.
“Or youth, or recreational users – they have no tolerance and so when that hits their system, they have no chance.”
Robitaille described the current level of danger and harm reduction’s role a bit like “bailing out a sinking boat,” but Laura Buchanan of ANKORS said there’s reason to look up, too.
“I feel hopeful,” she said. “We have an incredible team, we work together and we have built relationships with folks here.”
Isolation, housing can be barriers to support
Bennett regularly visits homeless people to provide them with food, sanitation, toiletries and other basic necessities. For some, that’s naloxone.
“I can go through a number of naloxone kits in a week,” Bennett said. When someone is revived by naloxone or on-site aid, without a call to 911, they’re likely to feel ashamed and quietly move on, he said.
Near-misses go undocumented. According to a 2018 study of BC Centre for Disease Control statistics, an increased prevalence of naloxone could be credited with preventing approximately one in five overdose-related deaths.
By bringing supplies to people, Bennett aims to protect them from a second public health emergency, too. His mobile service reduces the risk of COVID-19 spreading in community as well, helping people maintain safe distance and isolation.
Although two local motel rooms are on stand-by should someone without shelter require a place to self-isolate, Bennett said neither have been used so far during the pandemic.
“I can use COVID-19 prevention to check on people, check on their symptoms and hopefully just make their lives just a little bit better – give them hope,” Bennett said.
The outreach worker also connects clients with resources, like the Grand Forks Aquatic Centre, where free showers are offered on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 1 to 3 p.m. Cleanliness becomes even more important during a pandemic, he said, as does connection.
Social isolation, advised under COVID-19 prevention guidelines, also means more people may be using drugs alone and consequently away from someone who could help in case of emergency. Coincidentally the province endorsed an app in May that aims to protect people using alone.
Lifeguard, which had been in development for two years, according to the Provincial Health Services Authority, prompts the user to check in after taking their dose. If a user does not respond to the app’s alarm prompt after 75 seconds, the program automatically calls B.C. Emergency Health Services.
Accessing the new tool, though, requires a functional smartphone and a reliable place to charge it, presenting another barrier for people who use drugs but may not have stable housing. Though health and outreach workers point out that homelessness and drug use are not married concepts, despite stigmas that may be projected on both, someone who uses drugs and is without proper housing can be at a higher risk of danger.
The BC Coroners Service reports that 85 per cent of overdose deaths in 2020 occurred in some form of housing and 14 per cent occurred outdoors. The rate of deaths outside has slowly increased since 2017.