Special Report: Greater Victoria ambulance crews run off their feet with overdose calls

More resources, programs helping but not the end all solution

BC Emergency Health Services Brad Cameron oversees ambulance operations in Greater Victoria. (Photo courtesy of BC Emergency Health Services)

Local paramedics are doing what they can to keep up with the never-ending wave of calls that has come with the opioid crisis.

“The sheer volume is taking its toll on paramedics, it’s physically exhausting, it’s mentally exhausting … We’re run off our feet,” explained Brad Cameron, BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) supervisor of patient care for Victoria district.

Which means BCEHS has to also work harder to make sure its members are healthy, both physically and mentally. A number of new programs have been implemented to help crews deal with these additional stressors and new procedures are constantly being developed to make sure they are getting the help they need.

READ MORE: ‘B.C. cannot wait for action’: Top doctor urges province to decriminalize illicit drugs

To help shoulder the volume of calls that came with the opioid crisis, an extra ambulance was added to the Greater Victoria rotation in 2016. At the time, it helped decrease the number of calls per unit.

“But that lasted one year … and we’re continuing to get busier,” Cameron noted.

Last year, BCEHS paramedics responded to more than 23,600 overdose calls – an average of 64 per day in the province. The Vancouver Island Health Authority saw approximately 17 per cent of those calls, with more than 4,102 overdoses.

In the City of Victoria alone, ambulances responded to an average of four overdoses a day last year – accounting for approximately eight per cent of all BCEHS calls. In the first three months of 2019, the City of Victoria has already had 350 overdose calls.

Victoria consistently records the third highest rate of overdose calls, behind Vancouver and Surrey.

READ MORE: Carfentanil found in 15% of overdose deaths in January: B.C. coroner

In 2018, 1,510 British Columbians died of illicit drug overdoses, according to the BC Coroners Service’s most recent data available, published in March. That translates to approximately four deaths a day and is higher than the rate of people dying from motor vehicle incidents, homicides and suicides combined.

In September 2017, the provincial government allocated more than $7 million over a three-year span for the BC Coroners Service, as part of larger funding for immediate and evidence-based response to the opioid crisis. Coroners spokesperson Andy Watson noted this funding is enhancing their abilities to investigate overdose deaths and their response to the crisis, with funds being directed towards hiring and training as well as research and analysis.

While some say the crisis has plateaued as there were only three more deaths in Victoria and 24 provincewide in 2018 than 2017, Cameron sees it a little differently.

Ambulance crews have been kept busy with an increasing number of emergency overdose calls. (Photo courtesy of BC Emergency Health Services)

Two of the reasons death rates may not have increased as dramatically in 2018, at least in Greater Victoria, is the prevalence of naloxone and the addition of a supervised consumption site on Pandora Avenue. Since opening in June 2018, the site has not had a single death.

“Every second person is armed to the teeth with naloxone,” Cameron explained, adding two paramedics are also stationed at the site.

As of Feb. 23, Cameron noted the site had been used more than 42,000 times. During that timeframe, there were 153 overdoses but the paramedics on site were able to divert 150 Code 3 ‘lights and sirens’ emergency calls from other ambulance crews.

Those paramedics have also been building a rapport with participants and have been able to identify people who are critically ill before they are in an emergency situation.

“These people are passionately averse to going to the hospital,” Cameron explained. When these paramedics are able to get them critical care before they are found unresponsive on the street it means a night or two in the hospital and not an extended stay in the intensive care unit – or death.

READ MORE: B.C. opioid overdoses still killing four people a day, health officials say

While many see the opioid crisis as a ‘downtown problem’ as city centres tend to have a more visible concentration of users, this epidemic isn’t limited to Victoria.

“Where all the deaths are occurring are in the bedroom communities,” Cameron noted.

In Colwood alone, BCEHS calls for overdoses have nearly doubled in the last year.

In an effort to help stem the tide of deaths, Greater Victoria ambulance crews trialled a program where they distribute naloxone kits when they identify someone who may need one. Last year it saw tremendous success.

“If they passionately refuse to go to the hospital – which is their right – we offer them one of these kits,” Cameron said. “The problem is the education component. People have overdosed and died and sitting next to them is an overdose kit.”

While many think they will be able to recognize if they are starting to overdose, Cameron stressed that is not the case. “People think they can administer it themselves … [but] don’t ever, ever use alone.”

Despite their best efforts, new programs and government support, Cameron noted they haven’t been able to reverse the trend, something he doesn’t see happening any time soon.

“It’s now become the expected norm,” Cameron said. “I think there’s a lot of reaction … [but] we need to be proactive.”

For him, that means targetting children, as young as elementary school, with more education on drugs and drug use so they don’t become a statistic. But that also means there is no immediate end to the opioid crisis in sight.

This article is part one of a six-part special report on Greater Victoria’s opioid crisis. Find more at vicnews.com. For resources in Greater Victoria, find Black Press Media’s Overdose Prevention Guide online or pick up a hardcopy at our Victoria office, 818 Broughton St.

katie.e@blackpress.com


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Greater Victoria’s opioid crisis

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