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Cariboo paramedics on front lines of escalating toxic drug poisoning epidemic

Drug poisoning rates in the Cariboo have been going up steeply since 2016
BC Emergency Health Services are on the front lines of the toxic drug crisis in the Cariboo region. (Ruth Lloyd photo - Williams Lake Tribune) BC Emergency Health Services are on the front lines of the toxic drug crisis in the Cariboo region. (Ruth Lloyd photo - Williams Lake Tribune)

Toxic drug poisoning rates in communities across the Cariboo have been escalating dramatically, with 2022 once again set to break records.

BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) remain on the front lines of the province’s toxic drug crisis. The organization tracks overdose call volumes across the province.

In Williams Lake alone, BCEHS paramedics have responded to 40 drug poisoning patient events in just under three months in Williams Lake from Sept. 1 to Nov. 17, 2022, in contrast to 17 toxic drug patients in the same period in 2021.

So far this year, they have responded to 143 overdose patients in the lakecity, with December still to go, while in 2021 lakecity paramedics saw a total of 117. This is a significant jump from 2016, when the toxic drug crisis was first declared a public health emergency in B.C.

In 2016, Williams Lake paramedics responded to 53 drug poisonings.

Quesnel and 100 Mile House are also struggling with rising rates of toxic drug poisoning. Quesnel has gone from 62 responses to drug poisonings in 2016 to 157 in 2021. One Hundred Mile House went from 17 to 31 in the same period.

Provincially, BCEHS responded to an average of nearly 100 drug poisonings a day in 2021 and report the calls are increasingly complex due to drugs becoming even more toxic.

“We are responding to drug poisoning patients in cardiac arrest,” said Cindy Leong, BCEHS communications officer. This leads to longer response times to stabilize these patients for transport.

“Paramedics will tell you there is no typical overdose/poisoning patient,” stated Leong. “This crisis is affecting people from all walks of life.”

She said paramedics are now finding themselves becoming community advocates to help try and address the situation, connecting people to resources and stressing the importance of not using illicit drugs alone, going slow and using the Lifeguard App if you do use alone. The app has reportedly saved 49 lives since it was released.

Between the pandemic and the toxic drug crisis, Leong said paramedics are facing additional physical and mental challenges.

This increase in drug poisoning responses in the Cariboo is higher than province-wide rates, with some communities not seeing the same dramatic increases.

Examples where drug poisoning rates have remained nearly the same between 2016 and 2021 are Osoyoos, with 16 drug poisoning responses in both years, Golden which went from seven to nine in this timespan and Revelstoke has gone from 10 drug poisoning responses to 11 in those years.

British Columbia’s Public Safety and Solicitor General reported the highest overall death rates so far in 2022 have been in the Northern Health Region and the Coastal Health Region, though the Cariboo has been among the highest rates for health service delivery areas. By the end of September, the province reported 1,644 deaths due to illicit toxic drug poisonings.

“The illicit drug market continues to pose immense risks to people across our province,” stated Lisa Lapointe, the province’s chief coroner in a release. “People in communities across B.C. are continuing to lose friends, family members and colleagues to the unprecedented toxicity of the unregulated drug supply. I extend my sincere condolences to all of those grieving the loss of a loved one.”

The September release also cited illicit drug toxicity as the current leading cause of unnatural death in British Columbia. At least 10,326 British Columbians have been lost to the illicit drug supply as of September of 2022 since the public-health emergency for substance-related harms was first declared in April 2016.

Read more: EDITORIAL: Drug overdoses taking toll

Read more: Overdoses ‘sadly normalized’ in British Columbia: addictions minister

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Ruth Lloyd

About the Author: Ruth Lloyd

After moving back to Williams Lake, where I was born and graduated from school, I joined the amazing team at the Williams Lake Tribune in 2021.
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