B.C. paramedics responded to more drug poisoning calls than ever in 2021

·3 min read
Paramedics respond to a call in Vancouver on International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31, 2020.   (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Paramedics respond to a call in Vancouver on International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

As a paramedic specialist, Brian Twaites splits his time responding to calls on the ground and working in the communications centre with B.C. Emergency Health Services (BCEHS).

When Twaites is at the desk, he has a computer screen that shows all of the overdose calls as they come in across the entire province. Each one chimes as it's added to the list.

Some days, they don't seem to stop.

"At times, it's like, there's another overdose. Another one. There's another one in that city. It's astounding, when we have those busy days," said Twaites, who's worked as a paramedic for 35 years.

Paramedics and emergency dispatchers in B.C. responded to more calls for an overdose last year than ever before.

BCEHS on Wednesday said first responders were called to 35,525 calls over the course of 2021 — or 97 every day. It was also an increase of 31 per cent over the previous year.

Each call is intense. The drug supply is so toxic, a person can die within minutes of using after their breathing slows to a stop.

The responding paramedic needs to do everything from starting CPR, ventilating the patient, giving them overdose-reversing Naloxone and ensuring they don't vomit and choke — all while wearing full PPE.

They have minutes before the patient is left with brain damage or dies.

"It's not just a matter of a shot of Narcan and they're on their way. These are high intensity calls where people are literally minutes from death," said Twaites. "These are very critically ill patients that you're working hard to try to save."

Peter Scobie/CBC
Peter Scobie/CBC

Paramedics, he said, are also using more Naloxone as the drug supply in B.C. has become increasingly poisoned.

"We're finding that we're having to give double, triple, five times the amount of Narcan to reverse these overdoses now. That's incredible," he said.

The highest number of calls came from the Lower Mainland, since the area accounts for roughly half of B.C.'s population. A statement said Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria saw more than any other city.

Surrey, in particular, saw nearly a 50 per cent increase in calls over 2020.

Number of calls has tripled since 2015

Twaites said it's critical people who use drugs don't do so alone.

"Always make sure that you have a friend with you, a family member, somebody who's not doing the same substance as you, so if you still have that unfortunate incident of an overdose ... somebody can give you a shot of Narcan while they're phoning 9-1-1," he said.

"I've been to calls where there's been a guy unconscious on the floor that we're actively resuscitating and his friend phoned us. He had done drugs out of the same line, but he wasn't unconscious and was able to make the phone call."

Overall, the statistics showed calls for help have nearly tripled since 2015. The province declared a public health emergency in April 2016 over the alarming number of people dying as a result of a toxic drug supply.

Since that declaration, more than 8,500 more people have died. Overdoses are the leading cause of death in B.C. for people between 19 and 39 and the second-leading cause for people 40 to 59.

Nearly every community across B.C. saw an increase in calls, but a few outside the Lower Mainland stood out with a decrease. Quesnel had 25 per cent fewer calls, with Fort St. John close behind at 22 per cent.

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