B.C. paramedics respond to 96 overdose calls a day in May, highest in a single month over last 5 years

·2 min read
In May, B.C. paramedics responded to 2,977 calls related to drug overdoses.  (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC News - image credit)
In May, B.C. paramedics responded to 2,977 calls related to drug overdoses. (Gian-Paolo Mendoza/CBC News - image credit)

Last month, B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) recorded its highest overdose call volume for one month in the past five years, as paramedics responded to 2,977 calls province-wide — an average of 96 calls per day.

BCEHS said 803 of those calls were in Vancouver, 315 were in Surrey and 159 were in Victoria.

"No community is immune," BCEHS said in a tweet.

The BC Coroners Service said 176 people died of a drug overdose in April, averaging about six deaths per day. That's up 43 per cent compared to April of 2020.

This all means that paramedics and dispatchers have been busier than ever, and it's creating a strain on the system.

Troy Clifford, provincial president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. and Emergency Dispatchers of B.C., called the situation "critical."

"Three-thousand calls in a month to overdoses, that's more than just regular work," he told On the Coast host Gloria Macarenko.

"There's no hope in sight it seems."

A staffing shortage is impacting both paramedics and dispatchers as they try to respond to two public health emergencies in the province: the COVID-19 pandemic and a poisoned supply of illicit drugs.
A staffing shortage is impacting both paramedics and dispatchers as they try to respond to two public health emergencies in the province: the COVID-19 pandemic and a poisoned supply of illicit drugs.(Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of B.C.)

Clifford, who has been a paramedic for 33 years, said he's never seen anything that compares to the situation emergency health responders are now facing.

"We need some help."

According to Clifford, there are 4,500 paramedics and dispatchers across B.C., but COVID-19 and the overdose crisis have created a need for more first responders.

BCEHS says paramedics typically respond to more than 1,400 calls per day, but in the past few weeks, that number has been closer to 1,700.

He said staffing shortages and scheduling complications mean that up to 30 ambulances in the Lower Mainland go unstaffed each day, as the overdose crisis gets worse. BCEHS confirmed that "some" ambulances do go unstaffed "at times."

The union that represents paramedics and dispatchers in B.C. said up to 30 ambulances have been unstaffed in the province on any given day.
The union that represents paramedics and dispatchers in B.C. said up to 30 ambulances have been unstaffed in the province on any given day.(Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

He said the province is also short on dispatchers, which has resulted in delays on the weekend.

Additionally, fewer people are becoming paramedics with BCEHS, because they can make more money working as an industry medic or in another related profession.

When it comes to staffing, he said the problem is up to BCEHS to fix — recruitment and scheduling are at the heart of the issue.

B.C. Emergency Health Services spokesperson Sarah Morris said in an email to CBC that between the overdose crisis and COVID-19 pandemic, there has been pressure on staffing which they are monitoring and adjusting as needed.

Morris added that BCEHS has added nearly 300 permanent paramedic positions since last fall, and plans to add more in coming months.

Listen to Troy Clifford's interview on CBC's On the Coast here: