News Local

Vancouver mayor pleads for B.C. to direct $10M to drug-overdose crisis

Nick Eagland

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is pictured in this January 17, 2017 file photo. (Jason Payne/Postmedia Network)

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson is pictured in this January 17, 2017 file photo. (Jason Payne/Postmedia Network)

With new data showing that overdose deaths continue in Vancouver, Mayor Gregor Robertson is pleading for the provincial government to pump recently acquired federal money into drug substitution therapy.

According to data released by the city Thursday, Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services reported 92 overdose calls between March 6 and 13 while police reported 12 suspected overdose deaths. While this was a drop from the week prior — during which 174 calls and 14 suspected overdose deaths were reported — the city said it is higher than the historical average.

And despite the perception that overdoses spike when income-assistance cheques are issued, the data show that "overdoses are happening all the time and are very challenging to predict," the release said.

Robertson called the impact of the fentanyl crisis on Vancouver families "truly heartbreaking" and said the B.C. government needs to spend $10 million it received from the federal Minister of Health to fight the overdose crisis on treatments such as opioid-substitution therapy.

"Those funds should be used to broaden access to clean prescription drugs and substitution therapy, and expand treatment-on-demand services to save lives and help people recover from substance use," he said in the release.

The majority of calls came from the Downtown Eastside, but cases outside the downtown area "remained significant," the city said.

Vancouver police reported four overdoses in a single day — March 12. However, toxicology reports aren't complete and death numbers must be confirmed by the coroners.

The city said it also received a report from Health Canada of high levels of carfentanil, with lab data showing four to six per cent of drugs tested positive for carfentanil and other deadly synthetic opioids this month, up from one to two per cent in January.

In April last year, provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall declared a public health emergency in response to a spike in overdoses and deaths, most of them related to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid being cut into street drugs of all kinds.

Of the 922 people who died of an illicit-drug overdose in B.C. in 2016, 215 were in Vancouver, according to the B.C. Coroners Service. Vancouver Coastal Health had the highest rate of illicit-drug overdose deaths among all health authorities, at 21.6 deaths per 100,000 people.

VCH said that between Jan. 1 and Feb. 18, 2017, there were 1,008 illicit or unknown drug overdoses in its emergency departments. Opioids accounted for a 32 per cent of the visits — mostly heroin. Unknown substances were the cause of 38 per cent of visits.

In December, five overdose prevention sites and a mobile medical unit were opened in Vancouver. On Wednesday, St. Paul's Hospital announced that a new service called the HUB will open there this spring to bolster care for people in the midst of mental-health and substance-use crises.