Bleak overdose numbers in northeast B.C. driven by toxic new drug combination, says outreach worker

·3 min read
Shoes representing a life lost to a drug overdose hang in Vancouver on International Overdose Awareness Day.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Shoes representing a life lost to a drug overdose hang in Vancouver on International Overdose Awareness Day. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Outreach worker Lisa Jewell says what she is witnessing in Fort St. John supports the dire statistics contained in the latest BC Coroner Service report that shows the northeast region has the highest overdose death rate in the province.

"We're seeing people overdose on a daily basis," said Jewell, Fort St. John Women's Resource Society outreach coordinator.

"We know that the drugs on the street right now are incredibly toxic ... It's just crazy the number of people going down."

Through the first two months of 2021, 28 people have died of illicit drug overdose in the northeast, which works out to a rate of 73 deaths per 100,000 individuals.

The next highest area in the province is Vancouver with 64.2 deaths per 100,000 so far in 2021.

The coroners report says "2021 rates should be interpreted with caution due to small numbers."

But Jewell believes a new drug combination on the street called 'suicide' seems to be driving the terrible trend.

"This seems to be a more intense version of heroin and fentanyl being mixed together. Some people say it feels more like carfentanil," she said.

"It breaks my heart when people come and tell me that they have "suicide" in their hand and they're going to go do it right now. My first reaction of course is please take some naloxone."

Donna Ward, director of specialized services for the northeast region of Northern Health, believes the drug has been on the streets for a while, it's just the name that's new.

"I'm saddened by the name that has been adopted," she said. "It's simply the same drug that's been here and everywhere else in the world with fentanyl contaminates in opiate drugs."

Jewell says most of the overdose deaths are among those who are using alone and is encouraging people to use the buddy system.

Otherwise, she recommends the Lifeguard app, which provides a small measure of protection by automatically dispatching emergency help based on the GPS indicator if a person doesn't check-in within a certain amount of time after having taking substances.

She says providing better access to nasal naloxone would also be a help.

"I came into work [Tuesday] and I was told that a client I've been working with for four years was found in a truck stop bathroom with a needle hanging from his arm," she said. "It breaks my heart."

Ward says a number of initiatives are being launched to address the overdose problem in Fort St. John.

On Monday, a new peer outreach team will start working five days a week in the city, providing harm reduction supplies, essential items and collecting discarded drug paraphernalia. The peer team will work in collaboration with the city's intensive case management team.

Additionally, a new mobile overdose protection site is set to roll out in the next month in a retrofitted cargo van.

Ward believes the mobile overdose protection site will be an improvement to the current, temporary harm reduction site which is located on the third floor of an office building.

"We'll have that out on the street every day," she said. "We're expecting to see a large drop in the number with this ongoing service."

The death toll from illicit drug overdoses continues to rise at a staggering pace in British Columbia.

The BC Coroners Service says through January and February of this year, 320 people have died of overdoses in B.C., an average of 5.4 deaths per day.