Vernon’s Cammy LaFleur Street Clinic harm-reduction counsellor Alison Houweling said they have responded to more overdoses amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Black Press files)

Vernon overdoses spike amid COVID-19 pandemic

British Columbia recorded a record 170 overdose fatalities in May

After British Columbia saw its highest-ever number of overdose deaths last month, harm-reduction workers in Vernon said the city has seen a worsening of the crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are responding to an increase of overdoses on the street but there are a variety of factors playing into the increase of overdoses,” said Alison Houweling, a harm-reduction counsellor at Cammy LaFleur Street Clinic and a member of Vernon’s Harm Reduction Team (HART).

“These factors have a lot to do with the COVID pandemic.”

The province recorded 170 fatal overdoses in May, according to BC Coroners Service data released June 11.

It’s the most deaths in a single month since the opioid crisis was declared in 2016 and a 93 per cent increase from May 2019’s totals.

“We’ve also responded to and revived more people, or we’ve heard of more people responding to overdoses with naloxone and saving them,” Houweling said.

“Those are the statistics you won’t see.”

Eighty-five per cent of all deaths in B.C. in 2020 have taken place indoors, and according to postmortem toxicology results, nearly 20 per cent of the deaths in April and May involved extreme fentanyl concentrations — compared to nine per cent the previous year.

READ MORE: B.C. records highest ever number of fatal overdoses in May with 170 deaths

READ MORE: Revelstoke has third highest rate of overdose deaths in the province

The high concentrations are concerning for Houweling, she said, and likely a knock-on effect of the pandemic and its disruption of drug supplies.

“With the border shut, there are a lot more homemade drugs,” she said.

Experts have also warned that Canada’s emergency response benefit program (CERB) — a federal support program for people affected financially by the pandemic — may have contributed to higher overdose deaths.

Houweling said there could be some truth to the idea that a sudden increase in income, combined with the effects of physical isolation, could provide circumstances for people to use higher doses of illicit drugs and more overdoses as a result.

However, she said, such overdoses are more likely to take on the street, where the HART team can reach them with life-preserving naloxone.

The more concerning demographic for Houweling is what she refers to as the hidden population: the people who are dying in private residences.

Fifty-seven per cent of the overdose deaths last month occurred in private residences, and 28 per cent in other locations such as social and supportive housing, single-room occupancy (SROs), shelters, and hotels.

“There are a lot of people who are not working and that CERB cheque that’s keeping them afloat is a lot less than what they’re used to,” Houweling said.

From Houweling’s perspective, the most positive impact would come from eliminating stigma, and encouraging the hidden population to reach out for help.

Towards mitigating this problem, the new Lifeguard Digital Health app launched last month.

The user activates the app before taking the dose. After 50 seconds, the app will sound an alarm. After 75 seconds a text-to-voice call will go straight to 911, alerting emergency medical dispatchers of a potential overdose, with anonymity kept intact.

Houweling said the app hasn’t been as relevant in her work with street-entrenched people, who often don’t have a cellphone. But she said the app could be a massive benefit to those who are housed and have a phone.

To get naloxone kits, naloxone training, harm reduction supplies and information visit the Cammy LaFleur clinic at 2800 33rd Street in Vernon, Monday to Friday from 1-3 p.m, or call 250-938-3518.


Brendan Shykora
Reporter, Vernon Morning Star
Email me at Brendan.Shykora@vernonmorningstar.com
Follow us: Facebook | Twitter

B.C. overdoses

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

UPDATED: Interior Health to add 495 long-term seniors care beds

Nelson, Kelowna, Kamloops, Vernon and Penticton to receive new facilities

Women stage protest outside town hall to preserve Glenview Park

Two Princeton women spent several days, over the past two weeks, protesting… Continue reading

QUIZ: Are you ready for a summer road trip?

How much do you really know about roads, motor vehicles and car culture? Take this quiz to find out.

Provincial COVID-19 data can now be used for B.C. to prepare for a second wave

In the past week, B.C. has seen a slight spike in daily test-positive case counts

Wage subsidy will be extended until December amid post-COVID reopening: Trudeau

Trudeau said the extension will ‘give greater certainty and support to businesses’

COVID-19 exposure on Kelowna flight

Interior Health has capacity to test individuals who need it, but is reminding everyone that testing is not required for those who do not have symptoms

Kelowna COVID-19 cluster identified after private parties

Risks ‘considerably higher’ while attending private events, said Health Minster Adrian Dix

Use of safety flares prompt search on Shuswap Lake

Marine search and rescue crew finds boat unoccupied, no one in distress

Foul play not currently suspected in death of man found near Sicamous

Body found in woods near vehicle linked Edmonton Police Service investigation of suspicious death

Drive-by shooting in Kamloops

This is the second drive-by shooting in the city in the last two weeks

Revelstoke RCMP searching Columbia River for possible body

Boats and aircrafts are searching the area

Tree planters get help with COVID-19 protective measures

Ottawa funds extra transportation, sanitizing for crews

Most Read