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Kamloops reaction to deadly overdose year: Action needed now

Kamloops Coun. Dale Bass described the numbers as heartbreaking, while ASK Wellness Society executive director Bob Hughes said the opioid crisis is impacting people from all walks of life.

The deadliest year of the opioid crisis claimed the lives of more than a person a week in Kamloops in 2020 and it has local officials calling for more action.

According to 2020 BC Coroners Report, released on Thursday (Feb. 11), Kamloops recorded 60 overdose deaths last year, the most ever in the city and the sixth-most of any community in B.C. The 60 deaths were 35 more than that recorded in 2019 (25 deaths) and 14 more than the previous year with the highest number of overdose deaths, 2018, which had 46 deaths.

Across the province, there were 1,716 deaths due to illicit drugs in 2020 in B.C., representing a 74 per cent increase over the number of such deaths recorded in 2019 (984). The number of overdose deaths in 2020 equates to about 4.7 deaths per day, which is two deaths per day higher than in 2019 (2.7 days per day).

Kamloops Coun. Dale Bass described the numbers as heartbreaking.

“It’s awful. It’s still happening and it’s getting worse and I understand COVID probably had some impact on it, but something has to be done,” she said.

Bass said it’s a good sign that the provincial and federal governments are now talking about decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs; however, the first-term councillor noted, governments tend to move slowly.

She said more treatment and recovery beds are needed, as well as additional shelters, more mental-health services, support for social agencies and higher wages for those working in the field as it’s clear from the overdose numbers that current levels aren’t enough.

“We need more, more, more, basically,” Bass said, adding that Interior Health also needs to be more receptive to the initiatives for which city council and the community at large have been advocating.

The health authority has refused to add another nurse to the Car 40 program, which pairs a police officer with a mental-health professional to respond to mental health-related matters, despite calls from city council.

Bass also noted a business case for a sobering centre in Kamloops has been in front of the provincial government for years — dating back to the previous B.C. Liberal government.

“Fundamentally, government needs to get itself together here and start moving forward, quit meeting and do something,” Bass said.

ASK Wellness Society executive director Bob Hughes said it was heart-wrenching to hear the level of harm the opioid crisis caused in 2020, noting it is impacting people from all walks of life and not only those in a homeless lifestyle.

In 2020, 84 per cent of overdose deaths occurred inside (56 per cent in private residences and 28 per cent in other residences, including social and supportive housing.)

Hughes said the current investment in harm reduction and overdose prevention has been vital, pointing out that more funding for treatment facilities and programs is important going forward.

“We can only imagine what the impact would be if we didn’t have these services and access to resources like naloxone,” Hughes said, referring to the medication that temporarily reverses the effects of an overdose.

Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Sheila Malcolmson said about 6,000 overdose deaths were prevented in 2020 due to the use of medication such as naloxone. No deaths have been reported at supervised drug use or overdose prevention sites.

Asked about decriminalization, Hughes said he agrees people shouldn’t be incarcerated for simple possession, but when addiction leads to criminal behaviour, he said it needs to be addressed from a criminal lens.

Social advocate Glenn Hilke, who has been involved in myriad ventures in the city that helps the marginalized, told KTW it’s been frustrating for Kamloops’ Community Action Team — a collection of about 30 local organizations that have tried to reduce overdose deaths — as every initiative they think to do, such as providing harm-reduction supplies, has not resulted in a reduction in the numbers of overdose deaths.

“What else is there to do? We’re not sure,” Hilke said, adding he agrees that more treatment and detox beds are needed.

Hilke believes what’s needed to bend the curve of this epidemic is twofold — decriminalization and a safe supply to ensure users remain safe from the toxic, fentanyl-laced illicit drug supply.

He also agreed with Bass that government needs to be more action-oriented.

“And not being afraid of trying pilot projects and not being afraid of failing because you learn from your failures,” Hilke said.