Fraser Health now believes a huge spike in overdose deaths last month could be due to a drug 100 times more lethal than fentanyl.
Fraser Health Authority’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr.Victoria Lee, told The Leader Monday she believes carfentanil, a tranquilizer 100 times more potent than fentanyl, has been killing addicts at an extremely rapid rate.
“Carfentanil, of course, is shown to be circulating in Vancouver,” Lee said. “I have also had within Fraser Health Region some confirmations around that.”
The B.C. Coroners Office is reporting that there were 128 overdose deaths in November, more than doubling the provincial average per month since 2015, which is 55.
The isolation of drug users, and the likely introduction of even more lethal synthetic opioids into the street drug supply, are cited as causes. It brings the total deaths in B.C. to 755 for the year, up 70 per cent from last year, with little relief in sight for December.
Lee believes that now even addicts who are street wise to fentanyl are getting killed by the carfentanil.
“The level of spike and the surge that we saw in November is likely due to carfentanil circulating more broadly,” Lee said. “Something unusual happened in November.”
She said part of that spike could be due to people coming out of the cold.
Surrey now has two safe consumption sites in place, however overdoses have skyrocketed in this region as a cold snap took hold.
“We are seeing people die with a naloxone kit open beside then, and they haven’t had time to use it,” said Lisa Lapointe, B.C.’s Chief Coroner, referring to the overdose treatment that has been made widely available.
By the end of December, the B.C. government expects to have 18 “overdose prevention sites” open in high-risk areas, including Surrey, Victoria, Prince George, Kelowna, Kamloops, Maple Ridge, Langley, Abbotsford and Vancouver.
Surrey’s sites are near the Front Room Drop-In Centre in the 10600-block of 135A Street and at Quibble Creek Sobering Centre, at 13670 94A Avenue.
Health Minister Terry Lake issued an emergency order Dec. 9 to open the new supervised sites without permission from the federal government.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall pleaded with affected communities to stop their protests against overdose prevention sites. The supervised sites will save lives “and what they will not do is bring problems into communities” because the drugs and users are already there, Kendall said.
Clayton Pecknold, B.C.’s director of police services, said he is encouraged by the latest federal government efforts to intercept synthetic drugs coming from China by mail. But there are still federal drug enforcement positions vacant, he said.
The potent synthetic drug fentanyl has been detected in about half of overdose cases, and even more powerful derivatives may be coming into B.C.
Dave Leary, spokesperson for the union representing B.C. paramedics, said Monday he’s seen a tremendous spike in the Whalley area, but also an increase in overdoses in the Guildford and Newton areas.
Most heartbreaking of all, he said, is seeing the same patient several times a day.
This issue isn’t just about addicts, he said, because everyone is facing increased wait times for paramedics and other health care workers.
“It’s really taking a toll,” Leary said. “This isn’t just about the homeless and addicts… this is about patients in general, waiting. It could be your grandmother who’s having a stroke, your dad who’s having a heart attack… the wait times are there.”
Leary doesn’t see a way out of this until more treatment options are made available those looking to get off drugs.
In a statement, provincial officials said 300 drug treatment beds have been opened and another 100 coming in the next month and the goal of 500 reached by the end of March.
Kendall said there is too much emphasis on treatment beds, when what is needed is a “continuum of services” to keep drug addicts from relapsing and move them to alternatives such as methadone.
with files from Tom Fletcher