As part of a new $5-million plan to slow the ever-rising death toll caused by opioid overdoses, paramedics on bikes and quads will patrol back alleys and parks in Vancouver and other inner cities.
Health Minister Terry Lake made the announcement yesterday in Kamloops. "I know our paramedics are feeling tremendous pressure as they respond to this public health emergency on the front lines," he told media Friday afternoon. "Last week we had the highest number of overdose-related 911 calls ever recorded."
This amounted to nearly 500 suspected overdose calls over a few days, he said, many of them concentrated in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and Surrey. In response, Lake said the province would put more resources into street-level supports and dispatch centres, including more "nimble" modes of transport.
The strategy mirrors some of the grassroots projects started by local drug users and volunteer first-responders. The government plan includes stationary "medical support units" in hard-hit areas, similar to the unsanctioned harm reduction tent that popped up in a Downtown Eastside alley in September. After months of providing overdose relief without permission from authorities, that group has opened a second tent near Main and Hastings Streets.
The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users also launched its own "Spikes on Bikes" patrols, bringing naloxone kits and other harm reduction supplies to the hidden corners and homeless encampments where people are overdosing.
Workers in the Downtown Eastside say they've already spotted first responders taking their sweet new wheels for a spin. Pop-up injection tent operator Sarah Blyth told VICE it was a welcome sight.
"It's a really good thing to see the ambulance folks in the alleys," she said, adding the unsanctioned tents would stay open. "We can't imagine taking that away and just having people back in the alley."
BC is the only province to declare a public health emergency over the fentanyl crisis. So far 622 people have died from illicit drug overdose in the province, with fentanyl detected in roughly 60 percent of cases. With hundreds more killed in Alberta and Ontario, observers like Blyth say it's about time the federal government followed suit.
"Even though the federal government doesn't think it's an emergency, the people here do," she said.
Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson chimed in yesterday, after a ride-along with the downtown fire hall that serves the Downtown Eastside. He "strongly" urged the feds to help open two new sanctioned safe injection sites in the area.
Lake also called on Trudeau's government to repeal Bill C-2, which limits safe consumption sites, and to ban pill presses across Canada.
"We are working with many others including harm reduction and addictions experts, police, the coroner and the federal government to find solutions, but in the meantime, we must make sure patients get the care they need," he said.
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