Reflecting on B.C.’s other pandemic five years after public health emergency declared

·6 min read

It was a sombre day for Angie Dzaman, reflecting as she was on the opioid crisis in B.C. as the province marked five years on Wednesday (April 14) since declaring a public health emergency due to the rise in opioid-related overdose deaths.

In November 2016, the Kamloops resident lost her nephew, 23-year-old Tyler Laybolt, to a fentanyl overdose — one of the 7,072 British Columbians to have lost their lives in that manner since the health crisis led to the public health emergency declaration on April 14, 2016.

“To think that 7,000 other people have died the same way my nephew has — I know the pain, the hurt, the damage that this has done to me personally … it’s a horrible place to be and to think there’s so many more people out there like that, it’s heartbreaking,” Dzaman said.

There have been more than 200 fatal overdoses in Kamloops during the past five years, with local paramedics having responded to more than 3,000 calls in that time.

The majority of deaths in B.C. are among middle-aged males and occur indoors, with fentanyl being involved in about 85 per cent of deaths.

While the overdose crisis began to show signs of subsiding in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation, which can be see in the statistics.

There were 44 illicit drug overdose deaths in Kamloops in 2016, 38 in 2017, 47 in 2018, 25 in 2019 and 60 in 2020, according to the BC Coroners Service. Between 2011 and 2015, fewer than 10 such deaths were recorded in Kamloops each year.

Across the province, there were 991 overdose deaths in 2016, 1,493 in 2017, 1,550 in 2018, 985 deaths in 2019 and 1,724 in 2020, with last year setting a grim record.

Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics and Dispatchers of BC, said he sees April 14 as a time to focus on the challenges families, paramedics and other health-care workers have experienced during this crisis.

“There’s no question that, in talking with our paramedics and dispatchers, that every day they see the impacts of the opioid crisis in the calls we respond to,” he said.

In 2016, Kamloops paramedics responded to 576 overdose calls, 679 in 2017, 685 in 2018, 613 in 2019 and a high of 883 in 2020, according to BC Emergency Health Services data. That’s up from an average of 280 per year between 2013 and 2015.

Provincewide, paramedics responded to more than 19,000 overdoses in 2016, more than 23,000 in each of 2017 and 2018, north of 24,000 in 2019 and in excess of 27,000 in 2020.

On average across the province, paramedics are responding to 74 overdose calls per day, said Clifford, who worked for years as a local paramedic and still calls Kamloops home.

He said the health crisis is not isolated to any one demographic as it impacts both young and old and rural and urban areas.

In 2019, before the pandemic began, overdose deaths declined for the first time since 2012, but in 2020, more people died by overdose than ever before in the province's history.

Clifford said pandemic-related stay-at-home orders have resulted in people feeling more isolated, amplifying their mental-health issues, which can then enhance addiction issues.

“That’s when people start using or compensating,” Clifford said.

According to the province, the pandemic created a setback, with a disruption in the supply chain for illicit drugs, making them highly toxic and unpredictable. There has also been increased isolation.

According to a joint statement from provincial officials, after seeing the number of overdose deaths decline in 2019, they know what public health measures can work to turn the crisis around.

“We have accelerated our province's overdose response exponentially over the past four years — and we will do more in 2021 and beyond,” the statement reads.

According to the province, in addition to expanding proven, life-saving measures, such as supervised drug-use sites — of which Kamloops has two — and making the overdose-reversing medication naloxone widely available, the government is building up treatment and recovery services, adding new beds around the province and trailblazing first-in-Canada solutions like a prescribed safe drug supply, allowing nurses to prescribe prescribing and taking action on decriminalization.

Clifford said there are two components to curbing the opioid crisis — managing drug use and supporting rehabilitation.

“We ask people, don’t use alone, have somebody with you, know your supply, access safe injection sites and carry naloxone,” Clifford said.

He said there is ample discussion on decriminalization these days and his organization supports anything that will help reduce the number of deaths.

“The policymakers need to look at better ways,” he said.

Former health minister Terry Lake told KTW he didn’t foresee the crisis being as bad as it is now when he was at the helm five years ago and declared the public health emergency that remains in effect today.

“Not at all,” Lake said. “It’s like COVID — when you’re at the beginning of it, you just don’t understand all the factors that come together to make the situation as bad as it is.”

He said he felt the steps taken at the time — safe-injection sites, widespread use of naloxone, limited increase in safe supply and an overdose-education campaign — would have an effect/ He noted that some progress was made, but it was wiped out by the impacts of COVID-19.

“It’s bitterly disappointing to see the record numbers that we’re experiencing today,” Lake said.

While COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation, with people using more due to isolation and border closures leading to a more toxic drug supply, Lake said, hopefully, once the pandemic subsides, those factors will no longer exist.

“Regardless, we need to do more,” Lake said, noting he hasn’t yet seen a significant advancement in initiatives since he was health minister.

Dzaman said the province needs to consider greater affordability when it comes to treatment and should provide more outpatient programs, ensuring they are accessible to everyone.

“Right now, it seems that what they have out there is so far from so many people’s reach that it’s inevitable for them to fail,” she said.

In 2013, Dzaman said, she discovered her nephew was addicted to heroin and it progressed to include fentanyl.

“It was two years of trying to help him when I could,” she said.

Dzaman said he reached out to her for help three times, but noted there wasn’t a detox bed for him in town and she couldn’t afford the available programs.

Eventually, the family got him into an outpatient program in Edmonton, where his mother lived, but during a weekend trip back to Kamloops, he suffered a fatal overdose, Dzaman said.

“He came here on a Friday and we got a phone call on Saturday at dinner time that he was dead,” Dzaman said. “We all thought he was doing better than he was doing.”

An emotional Dzaman said she remembers her nephew on days like today with “a grain of sadness.”

“He was a good kid. He just had hurts in his life and didn’t have the proper tools to heal and, unfortunately, he went to drugs,” she said. “That’s something I carry, and will always carry, that I didn’t give him the right tools to heal.”

Michael Potestio, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Kamloops This Week