Residents of one of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods say they’re seeing a new wave of fatal drug overdoses, and Vancouver’s top doctor says social distancing measures to fight COVID-19 could be partially to blame.
As pandemic concerns grew in March, service providers in the Downtown Eastside community closed drop-in centres, banned guests in social housing, and scaled back access to some overdose prevention sites, all in the name of physical distancing to fight the virus.
But in a presentation to city council on Tuesday, Vancouver Coastal Health’s top doctor Patricia Daly said many of those measures went beyond what public health orders required during the pandemic, and likely put people at greater risk.
“Some of our overdose prevention services were reducing their hours, or cutting back on the number of booths available because they believed that made it safer for those using their services,” Dr. Daly said.
“In fact by far the greatest crisis in the Downtown Eastside continues to be the opioid overdose crisis. We’ve had not a single death from COVID-19, and very few cases,” she said.
Since the virus hit Vancouver, there has already been one spike in suspected overdose deaths with around 30 deaths in March, the highest estimated death rate in a year, and eight in the final week of March alone. Daly said this could be attributed in part to service providers misunderstanding public health orders that restricted gatherings of more than 50 people and cutbacks to services that actually put more people at risk.
“I’m concerned that people are consuming their drugs in much riskier circumstances because of their fear of COVID-19,” Daly said.
At one of Canada’s largest tent encampments in Oppenheimer Park, residents say another spike in fatal overdoses is underway.
Early Monday morning it killed Reece Draayers.
Days before his death, Draayers’ best friend Nikkisha Carter said he was busy responding to overdoses and trying to save people.
“Someone OD’d on the far side of the park and Reece went running,” she said Monday, through tears. “That was the last time that I saw him.”
A two-spirited man originally from B.C.’s central coast, Draayers was proud of his Indigenous Wuikinuxv ancestry and loved traditional jingle and fancy dancing, according to his sister Keeley.
“He was such a medicine man, really focused on First Nations medicine and healing,” Keeley said. “When you met him, he had this way of making everyone feel at home.”
Draayers was also a staunch advocate for other underhoused people living at the park, and elsewhere. In August, when the city attempted to shut down the encampment at Oppenheimer Park, Draayers led protest marches against the camp’s removal.
Eventually the various public agencies involved backed down and the push to dismantle the encampment was stalled.
In the months before he died, Draayers was sharing a room with Carter in social housing near the park. The pair have been friends for over a decade.
“People used to joke that he was my husband,” Carter said. “Whenever I’d see him he’d scoop me up in his arms and swing me around three times.”
Draayers’ death hit Carter particularly hard. She said her older sister died of an overdose about a week before Draayers.
“I’m worried about the same thing happening to my boyfriend,” she said. “I feel like I’m a sitting duck, just waiting to find out who the next person to die is going to be.”
Camp organizer Chrissy Brett said Draayers’ death is the first to be overdose-related in the park, but amid the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, she worries there will be more.
Two weeks ago Brett says she found a man dead in a nearby portable toilet from what she believes is an overdose.
“He was slumped over and at first I thought he was sleeping, but he wouldn’t wake up and he was cold to the touch,” she said. “I didn’t have my purse or my Narcan with me, so I ran to get help but he didn’t recover."
The distancing measures that put higher numbers of people on the streets may also be increasing the risks from other dangers.
Erica Grant said her son Duncan went missing in early April, but guest restrictions at his SRO building made it impossible for her to check on him. He was eventually found dead days later in his room with fentanyl in his system, Grant said.
There were multiple sticky-notes on his door asking him to call his mother, but for days no one had been in to actually check on him, she said.
“He never used to disappear like that. He hated being in his building alone,” Grant said. “I couldn’t go check on him because I wasn’t allowed in his building.”
Daly worries that April will see a spike in overdose deaths similar to March.
While Vancouver has seen the rate of overdose deaths fall over the past year, Daly explained that’s not because there are fewer overdoses. It’s because more people are surviving them, thanks to interventions like naloxone and access to overdose prevention sites.
But since the start of the pandemic, visits to overdose prevention sites have fallen from an average of 6,000 per week to around 2,000 per week.
While the province has been releasing near-daily updates to the number of deaths from COVID-19, it’s impossible to know exactly how many overdose deaths there have been during the pandemic because public agencies can’t agree on whose job it is to release the numbers.
VICE asked the police to provide the data behind Daly’s presentation, but VPD spokesperson Sgt. Aaron Roed said the police don’t track medical information like that. “The VPD are unaware of where Dr. Patricia Daly obtained her numbers,” Sgt. Roed said.
The B.C. Coroner’s office said the most recent figures it has available stop in January.
The coroner’s office also said it would “never speculate on the cause of death or ‘suspected’ cause, as the coroner’s investigation would have to be completed to determine the cause.”
Meanwhile, the city and the province have started dismantling the encampments at Oppenheimer Park and at two other tent cities in Victoria, B.C.
The province says it has secured hundreds of empty hotel rooms and other spaces to house homeless people during the pandemic because of fears about how fast the virus could spread if it reaches one of the encampments.
The province has said no one will be forced to take a hotel room, but a public safety order issued last weekend gives police the power to arrest anyone who refuses to leave the camps.
On Saturday, City of Vancouver workers had already fenced off sections of Oppenheimer Park they had cleared, but Brett and several other activists worry that, like the social distancing restrictions, the move to close down the encampments might be a dangerous overreach.
“Absolutely they’re taking advantage of COVID-19 to shut this place down,” she said.
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