In 2018 a total of 20 people died due to drug overdoses in Vernon and a reported seven people have died in 2019 as of June 1. (AP File Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Overdoses overwhelming in B.C. Interior

Part two: Who’s affected by the current opioid crisis

It is no secret the B.C. Interior has experienced the effects caused by the national opioid overdose crisis.

Vernon medical health officer Dr. Karin Goodison notes that four specific municipalities across the Interior — Kamloops, Kelowna, Vernon and Penticton — have seen significant increases in the number of people dying due to opioid overdoses in recent years.

In 2018 a total of 20 people died due to drug overdoses in Vernon and a reported seven people have died in 2019 as of June 1.

“Almost all of this is due to fentanyl,” said Goodison. “It has become clear that we have poison in our illicit drug supply.”

If you took fentanyl-related deaths out of the equation, she explained, there would not be a significant increase in overdose deaths.

According to the B.C. Coroner’s report, illicit fentanyl-detected deaths appear to account for the increase in illicit drug overdose deaths since 2012. Overdose deaths without fentanyl-detected has remained relatively stable since 2011 with an average 285 deaths per year.

Part One: The opioid crisis and the B.C. Interior

Research also showed that men have been impacted more than women — 80 per cent of opioid-related deaths across B.C. were men.

“We’ve seen that that’s actually higher in Vernon with about 88 per cent of deaths in 2018 being men,” said Goodison.

She explained that this has actually changed the life expectancy in B.C. Data released by Statistics Canada found that life expectancy in Canada fell for the second year in a row between 2016 and 2017, dropping by 0.3 years for men and 0.1 years for women.

The 2018 Coroners Death Review reviewed people who had died between January 2016 and mid-2017 and showed that almost 80 per cent of individuals who had died due to the crisis had contacted Health Services within the year preceding their death, 77 per cent were regular drug users.

Goodison notes that though the crisis seems to have originated in urban settings like Vancouver, it slowly crept into rural locations and began affecting these populations at more significant rates.

“We’re seeing it move to smaller settings like Vernon and Penticton,” she said. “It’s more challenging to combat because, based on per capital modeling, we have less resources in rural areas than we do in an urban areas.”

She explained that despite their efforts, many suffering from addiction often don’t seek out resources because there is often less confidentiality in smaller cities and towns. For example, the individual may be deterred from seeking help because they’re more likely to know the person offering the service.

The B.C. Coroner’s report also found that 44 per cent of individuals were employed at the time of their overdose. Goodison notes that this is likely due to the shame surrounding substance use as individuals may be more likely to use alone and are therefore less likely to be found and resuscitated. About 60 per cent of overdose deaths in Vernon occurred in private residences.

“We still have concerns about people who are using alone and are working to access the population in an effective way,” she said. “Fetanyl has been detected in 70-80 per cent of these deaths in Vernon.”

Vernon local James* is a good example. Though he overdosed multiple times, he admits he’s lucky to be alive.

“I always worked and I always had lots of money. I was never downtown using drugs; I was always using in my vehicle or in my home. I overdosed over 20 times in three years so I don’t know how (I’m alive) because I always used alone but somehow there was always someone who found me.”

Many are not so fortunate.

Editor’s Note: James’ name has been changed for anonymity and safety purposes. Part three of this series will address the addiction services available in Vernon.

Related: B.C.’s opioid crisis leads to first stall in Canadian life expectancy in 40 years: study

Related: Six-month implant newest option to treat addiction amid opioid crisis

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