On April 14, 2016, provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall declared a public health emergency under the Public Health Act due to the significant rise in opioid-related overdose deaths reported in B.C. since the beginning of 2016.
The numbers of overdose response calls and overdose deaths have climbed dramatically in each year since.
The 1,782 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths in the province between January and October 2021 (latest stats available) are the highest ever recorded in a calendar year.
Few people have more experience dealing with the crisis than our first responders, with paramedics, police, and emergency room doctors and nurses seeing the effects of the crisis first-hand, on a daily basis.
OD callouts part of daily routine
“One look at the numbers will tell you this is not a big-city, Downtown Eastside problem - this is in every corner of the province, ” said Troy Clifford, provincial president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. (APBC), and the Emergency Dispatchers of B.C.
“That’s definitely one of the stigmas out there, people say ‘oh it’s the street people, it’s not me’ and that’s absolutely not the case. We experience every day, the paramedics and dispatchers of this province, the challenges with addiction and mental health, because they go hand in hand, and we are seeing the rise to the point where we are seeing the highest numbers ever in the province.
“So it is not going away, and it is not getting any better.”
Clifford said what was at one time an occasional call-out has now become part of a typical day for paramedics.
“We expect to have an overdose (call) every shift,” he said. “It’s sad to have to say that’s a normal part of our job now, but it is. When seven people die every day on average across our province, every one of those overdoses involve a paramedic, or a team of paramedics, or a call to our partners in public safety - the police, fire, and that’s resources that are tied up.”
|Paramedics responded to 35,525 overdose calls in the province in 2021. (Photo: Paul Henderson)
Nanaimo advanced care paramedic Stu Meyers said he gets approximately 20 calls a week for overdose issues in his territory alone, which covers the mid-Vancouver Island area from Chemainus to Bowser. With 32 years as a paramedic, he has seen a lot. He was in Vancouver from 1991-2003, which included the black tar heroin crisis. He said what has happened in the past six years is unlike anything else.
“We are seeing more and more of these overdoses,” said Meyers, who is also the APBC regional vice-president 1 North. “It used to be significantly less. When I moved to Nanaimo in 2005, our overdose responses, we were still doing them, but not anywhere near this extent.”
WorkSafe BC claims skyrocketing
And it’s not just affecting the resources by taking first responders away from other duties. There’s the fallout from the duties as well. The stress, anguish and trauma has always been ‘part of the job,’ but the opioid crisis has affected the paramedic community like nothing ever before.
“We are seeing the highest numbers we have ever seen, in any industry, from WorkSafe BC. At this time, we have about 30 per cent of our members either off on WorkSafe BC claims, in treatment, or managing in our critical incident stress program while they are working — seeing psychologists or professionals for help,” said Clifford. “And those are only the ones we know of, the ones that are reported.”
“Most of us are exhausted,” said Meyers. “Not only because of the opioid crisis, but as well, because of COVID, our staffing levels have been deeply impacted right across the province.”
Clifford said policy-making is not for him or other first responders to discuss, but it’s clear changes need to be made.
“We don’t judge. We are here to serve,” he said. “It’s not for us to get into public debate. We are about focusing on prevention, rehabilitation, and public safety. That’s really our job, and our advocacy as a profession. But clearly what we have done hasn’t worked, so we need to look at new models.”
“The continual overdose response is wearing on everyone,” added Meyers. “Not that we are not compassionate, but I would say there is an element of compassion fatigue for a lot of our members.
“It’s very damaging. We have a lot of members that are ‘bent’… and a lot of people who are injured, and I think it is paramount on the government to recognize the mental health strains on first responders, and to act.”
Ministry of Health responds
When contacted by Black Press Media, the Ministry of Health acknowledged the strain being put on all front-line workers and said efforts are being made to address the issue.
“We’re acutely aware of the mental and physical toll the job can take on paramedics, emergency medical dispatchers and other front-line staff,” the ministry said in an email statement. “Every day, our front-line staff do an incredible job caring for patients, and we want to do everything we can to make sure we have the support in place to help them when they need it.”
The ministry lauded the Critical Incident Stress Management program already in place for in BC Emergency Health Services.
“The program has peer support available for paramedics and dispatch staff 24 hours a day, and also offers follow-up counselling sessions with a psychologist if needed,” said the ministry, in the statement.
“BCEHS and the provincial government, in collaboration with the union, have been working on an even more robust program. It’s going to mean more peer support, and more professional psychological help and it will ensure paramedics, dispatchers, call takers and other front-line staff have easy access to the support they need.”
Other steps taken include the hiring of more staff.
“We are reinforcing ambulance operations with hundreds of new paramedic positions, including the 85 announced in mid-July — 30 new dispatchers and 22 new ambulances,” said the ministry. “Those positions were filled by the end of November 2021 and nine of the 22 ambulances are now in operation.”
Paramedics responded to 35,525 overdose calls in the province in 2021.
“It is spread out everywhere,” said Meyers. “You’re looking at it reaching all aspects of the community. It’s not just the homeless population at risk. It is spread out far and wide. The opioid crisis is non-discriminatory. It is spread across the board.”
“I don’t think there’s anyone who can say the opioid… challenges have not affected them, or they don’t know somebody that has been affected by it,” said Clifford.