Fentanyl related deaths are traumatizing the community. Image Credit—File Photo

Community traumatized by drug overdose deaths

The clients and workers at Living Positive Resource Centre are on the front line of a tragedy

A makeshift memorial filled with little paper hearts was added to the front office at the Living Positive Resource Centre last summer, to remember those lost to the fentanyl crisis.

“There are so many people who walked through our doors every day for years and we’re not going to see them again,” said Sheila Kerr, harm reduction and education co-ordinator with Living Positive.

The memorial offers a chance for people to remember who they lost and find a little calm amid the crisis that’s unfolded around them.

“I’ll be told about one death in the morning, then I will have another person tell me about the death of someone else…the community is traumatized,” she said.

“A couple of years ago, a non fatal overdose would be the talk of the town for months—that’s not the case now. People don’t have a chance to process the death to grieve or mourn because there will be another death to follow.”

The numbers the Coroner’s Office provides once a month offers supporting evidence. There have been 24 overdose deaths in Kelowna since the start of the year and, while many measures have been implemented to reduce drug deaths, casualties keep adding up.

The gravity of the situation became even more clear across B.C. last Wednesday, when front-line workers responded to 130 suspected overdoses April 26–that’s the most overdose calls in a single day.

BC Emergency Health Services says that figure included 18 suspected overdoses in the Interior, 52 in Vancouver, 38 in the Fraser Valley, and 18 on Vancouver Island.

While the losses keep adding up, the trauma isn’t being addressed.

“There are no services for people to go and talk about their losses,” she said.

The overdose death crisis is being addressed in a number of ways, but Kerr said she believes an important piece is education, both for the user and the general public.

“Segments of the population are becoming more aware of the issue and the need for more creative approaches,” she said. “But I still can’t read comments on news stories out there. There’s still a lot of judgement and blame, but not a lot of understanding of the issues that surround addiction or people who use substances.”

The health authority, she said, is making headway by implementing forward thinking policies. One of which is the mobile overdose prevention site which rolled out late last month.

Interior Health sent out a notice last week that it would now be offering overdose prevention services in Kelowna using a mobile unit. The mobile unit replaced the overdose prevention site at 1340 Ellis Street which is now closed and will stop at a downtown location and a Rutland location.

“The mobile overdose prevention unit will offer a place where people who use drugs can be safely monitored and treated if they overdose,” reads the statement from Interior Health.

“The unit will also provide enhanced harm reduction services including the distribution of naloxone and other harm reduction supplies as well as some primary health care services (wound care/ foot care etc.)”

They stressed that a mobile overdose prevention unit differs from a supervised consumption site and staff will not be supervising drug use in the mobile units until an exemption for a supervised consumption site is approved by Health Canada.

Kerr worked a few shifts at the brick and mortar prevention site before it closed and said she saw an increase over time in the amount of people using the service as people began to become more familiar and comfortable with the idea. Often, she explained, it is the stigma associated with substance use that prevents people from accessing such sites.

“Once it is identified as a safe and respectful place for people to be, it will contribute greatly to saving lives,” she said.

“We need to stop having people die.”