Despite the growing opioid overdose crisis that is sweeping the country, including here in the Central Okanagan, a top public health official with Interior Health says the record-breaking death toll in Kelowna this year does not have to become the new reality for the city.
Dr. Silvina Mema, medical health officer with IH in Kelowna, told city council Monday the deaths caused by opioid overdoses are preventable. But, she said, it will require more than just a health authority response to stem the shocking death rate.
“We need to take the response to the next level,” said Mema. “We need a community response.”
She urged council to raise the issue with other groups, committees and bodies it works with, as well as throughout the community, saying there are likely positive “made-in-Kelowna” solutions that could be found and used here to help address the issue.
Mema told council with 60 overdose deaths recorded between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 this year, the Kelowna area has already surpassed the record of 47 overdose deaths recorded in all of last year. And the city is one target to record a total of 90 overdose deaths in 2017, she added.
Mema said not only is the illicit drug overdose death rate in the city higher that it is in Vancouver, the Kelowna census metropolitan area currently ranks highest in the country among 34 other CMAs for opioid poisoning hospitalizations.
IH has a mobile supervised drug consumption van that stops downtown and in Rutland to offer its services and Mema said the van has been visited by “thousands” since it started earlier this year wishing to use it and get harm reduction supplies.
Mema described what IH is currently doing as “getting people out of the river who are drowning,” but said the health authority needs help from others, such as the city, to stop people “failing into the river upstream.”
But on Monday, some councillors expressed frustration IH officials on hand did not have specific ideas about what they could do to help.
“I’m trying to find answers to the insanity,” said Coun.Charlie Hodge. “But I’m frustrated.”
He said he was looking to IH to tell council how it could help, but was not getting any specific ideas.
Mema said there is no single solution. “Multiple solutions are needed,” she told him.
Meanwhile, Coun. Gail Given said one of the biggest issues in finding local suggestions for solutions will be showing the problem of illicit drug overdoses cuts across socio-economic lines and is not confined to the homeless or people living on the street.
IH statistics show males aged 30 to 49, members of the aboriginal population, people using drugs alone in private residence and regular and occasional drug users are most at risk of an opioid overdose.
“When people see themselves in the data, there’s a better chance of them buying into solutions,” said Given. “When you tell that story, that’s when you‘ll get better community buy-in.”
When Given asked if IH staff felt they had enough resources to meet the current need in dealing with the crisis, she was told no by the manager of the mobile supervised drug consumption van current being used in Kelowna. The manager said IH is already looking at extending the service because of the need and the initial response to it.
In the end, council was left wondering what it can do to help address the issue, other than encouraging people to talk about it and try to impress upon them that the crisis is something killing people from all walks of life in the city.
“This is a crisis that is killing our population,” said Coun. Ryan Donn.
As for Hodge, he said he would walk away from Monday’s council meeting “sadder than I was coming in,” because he wanted to help but needed some direction from the medical professionals he, and the rest of council, rely on for advice. But he felt he did not get that.
“I feel like one foot is nailed to the floor and we are just going round in circles on this,” he said.
In response, Mema said IH needs to hear the public’s ideas—ones that could work specifically in Kelowna—to help deal with issue that lead to illicit drug use in the first place. And then the city needs to prioritize those ideas.
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