A Nanaimo doctor is sounding the alarm over a spike in overdose-related deaths on central Vancouver Island.
“There’s been a spate of deaths which is unusual compared to the norm, and that’s only what we’re seeing in the hospital,” said Dr. David Forrest, an infectious disease specialist at Nanaimo General Hospital.
Forrest says seven people have died in Nanaimo’s ICU from drug toxicity over the past four weeks.
“I’m deeply concerned,” Forrest told CHEK News Monday. “If you characterize the last couple of years as an endemic state, this is definitely above the norm and is an epidemic.”
Sarah Edmonson and Chipper, who used to run Nanaimo’s overdose prevention site Nanaimo Area Network of Drug Users (NANDU), say overdoses and overdose-related deaths have only increased after the city designated them a nuisance property which led to them closing down.
“They knew it was going to happen, it’s not like it was a big surprise. They have the stats of how many people we’ve saved,” said Chipper.
“When NANDU first closed, there were about seven people that overdosed. The closure of NANDU and the new things they’re adding to drugs,” said Edmonson noting she became addicted to prescribed opiates after surgery to remove breast cancer. “It’s been really hard lately. I’ve had six or seven close friends die in the past month. Double that, for acquaintances.”
NANDU representatives say they helped 150-200 people per day in Nanaimo to safely use street drugs under their watch. Chipper says the new provincial overdose prevention site in downtown Nanaimo is welcome but doesn’t have enough peers to make users feel comfortable and doesn’t allow for enough traffic.
“They can have 8 people in the inhalation site and three people in the safe injection site, and you have an half an hour, that’s it,” said Chipper. “It’s just not feasible.”
Also contributing to the possible spike in fatal overdoses are local dealers cutting in relatively new drugs like xylazine, known as “tranq,” putting users into what Dr. Forrest calls delirium.
“It’s xylazine. Dealers are cutting it in because they’re trying to compete. They’re trying to have the best dope. And it’s awful to say, but as soon as someone dies, they flock to that dope,” said Chipper.
With the BC Coroners’ stats not yet available, paramedic information paints the picture.
From Jan. 15 to March 5, BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) says they responded to 2,926 patient events in Nanaimo, 284 of which were overdose/poisoning events, representing nearly 10 per cent of all calls.
“The number of overdose/poisoning patient events in Nanaimo does vary from week to week; however, in the past four weeks, the number of overdose/poisoning patient events per week has remained roughly the same as the average weekly number since the beginning of January 2023,” said a BCEHS spokesperson in a statement.
“Year over year, we’ve seen an increase from 6 to 10 per cent for overdose/poisoning events as part of the overall proportion of Nanaimo calls.”
Island Health issued an overdose advisory for Nanaimo on Feb. 22 that was extended on March 1. Forrest says it’s not enough.
“Simply trying to alert the drug-using community. That’s not stopping the use, that’s not stopping the death,” said Forrest. “This goes beyond public health. I think the only solution right now is to have some sort of safer drug supply.”
Forrest cited deep concerns for fatalities extending more and more into non-regular drug users and the impact that the increasing prevalence of overdoses has on healthcare resources.
NANDU representatives fear without a safe supply, the pressure overdoses are putting on the healthcare system will only increase.
“It’s here to stay, and if you don’t think it is, you must be high yourself. It’s an epidemic,” said Chipper.