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748 overdoses in 2021: Those on the frontlines of the crisis in Penticton speak out

The number of overdoses in 2021 is almost double that of 2020 in Penticton
Paramedics across B.C. and here in Penticton are attending one overdose a day on average in 2021 with no end in sight to the toxic drug supply. The opioid crisis has left B.C. paramedics struggling with mental health issues. (ADOBE STOCK IMAGE)

Penticton saw a shocking number of calls in response to overdoses in 2021.

Ambulances were called out to 748 overdoses last year, nearly double the amount from the year before of 474 call-outs.

This high number speaks to the opioid crisis and toxic drug supply going on in the community and around the province, says BC Emergency Health Services (BC EHS).

“While Penticton has year-over-year shown an increase in overdoses, the community is part of a province-wide trend to increasing overdose numbers during the pandemic,” said BC EHS.

When paramedics respond to a potential overdose, the patient has a 95 per cent chance of survival, according to B.C. Emergency Health Services.

Paramedics will tell you there is no typical overdose patient. This crisis is affecting people from all walks of life, not just those experiencing homelessness, they said.

BC Health Emergency Services tracks how many overdoses they attend in each community. The numbers can be found here.

Paramedics are administering more Naloxone than ever before and attending to an average of one overdose a day, said BC EHS. Penticton firefighters are also first responders to overdoses.

The detection rate of benzodiazepines, which are a form of tranquilizer and do not respond to Naloxone, has rapidly increased from 15 per cent of samples in July 2020 to 53 per cent of samples in October 2021, said Interior Health.

Penticton paramedics took 70 per cent more calls for drug overdoses in 2020 compared to 2019, Interior Health representatives told Penticton council Dec. 8, 2020. (Jesse Day - Western News file photo)
Penticton paramedics took 70 per cent more calls for drug overdoses in 2020 compared to 2019, Interior Health representatives told Penticton council Dec. 8, 2020. (Jesse Day - Western News file photo)

Penticton’s 2 shelters saw 219 overdoses in 2020

Tony Laing, CEO of Penticton And District Society for Community Living (PDSCL) that operates both Compass House and Victory Church shelters said the need for more support for mental health and addictions continues to grow with no end in sight.

In 2020, PDSCL staff responded to 219 overdoses between the two shelters, he said. The 2021 numbers weren’t available.

“The number of overdoses ebbs and flows depending on how toxic the drug supply is,” said Laing. “Ninety per cent of our homeless population are substance users, that combined with mental health issues is very challenging for staff to support and try to improve the lives of these individuals.

Although PDSCL works in housing for those most vulnerable, they are at the frontline of this crisis.

Laing said the need for ‘safe supply options, detox, rehab and complex care housing continues to grow’.

READ MORE: Never-ending opioid crisis driving B.C. paramedics to exhaustion

Help is there, says Interior Health

IH took over addictions and mental health services in 2021, in Penticton when they pulled funding from Pathways Addictions Resource Centre.

The health authority said it recently introduced a new program at the Penticton Regional Hospital Emergency Department to connect people who have opioid use disorder with OAT (Suboxone To Go Packs).

Nurse prescribing was also implemented in May 2021.

“We now have a nursing team able to write prescriptions for Suboxone (OAT medication) for a person with opioid use disorder,” said IH.

New withdrawal management resources, stabilization beds and other services are anticipated including adult and youth substance use services within Interior Health in 2022.

There are currently no treatment beds or detox available in Penticton.

People Need to Be Able to Walk-In and Get Help

Daryl Meyers, executive director of Pathways Addictions Resource Centre calls the overdose numbers in Penticton, horrific. IH pulled its funding from Pathways in March 2021, with over 1,000 clients they were helping a year. The addiction resource centre re-opened in late summer.

A free program Pathways is offering for opioids addiction is showing amazing results, she said.

“We cannot decriminalize drugs without a safe supply. We need people on board who can prescribe a safe supply,” she said.

“We cannot house and feed people when they have to spend their day in illegal activity to refrain from getting sick. We need to build a continuum of community connections where people can walk in and ask for help and receive a treatment option that will work for them. We cannot think that giving out Naloxone kits and opening overdose prevention sites will get us out of this, they are just one pillar.”

Pathways operate a free program called ICCON ( Intensive Coordinated Care Opioid Navigator). ICCON provides 24/7 wrap-around care for individuals struggling with an opioid disorder.

“In the past three and a half years we have had 150 people access the program and not one client has experienced an overdose or died,” she said.

“Working with families of clients is a huge game-changer when addressing opioid use disorder. Without getting families on board to understand how this disorder works it is very difficult for the client to do it on their own.”

Pathways have created a manual for any other city or town if they want to implement a program like this, she added.

Monique Tamminga

About the Author: Monique Tamminga

Monique brings 20 years of award-winning journalism experience to the role of editor at the Penticton Western News. Of those years, 17 were spent working as a senior reporter and acting editor with the Langley Advance Times.
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