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Overdose calls increased across the province in 2020

Paramedics in B.C. responded to more overdoses in 2020 than ever before.
BCEHS re-enactment of paramedics attending an overdose
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​BCEHS re-enactment of paramedics attending an overdose

Amid the pandemic, calls for overdoses spiked, and in July BC Emergency Health Services dispatch staff and paramedics handled the highest number of overdose responses ever recorded in a single month. The final tally for 9-1-1 calls from someone suffering a potential overdose was 27,067; up 12 per cent over 2019. 

“It’s hard for every paramedic who goes to those scenes,” says Penticton paramedic Unit Chief Pat Hussey. The community of Penticton had 474 overdose calls in 2020, up 87 per cent over the previous year. 

Hussey says not only are there more calls, but they are more complex. He is referring to the medical complexity of overdose patients. With the current drug toxicity, overdoses require multiple doses of Naloxone and the patient often has breathing and neurological complications. 

Every health region across the province saw an increase in overdoses, however there was one anomaly. The Vancouver Coastal region saw a slight decrease in calls by four per cent. One area within the Vancouver region saw a 14 per cent decrease in calls – the Downtown Eastside (DTES). For the last few years the DTES community has averaged more than 5,000 overdose calls a year. In 2020 that number dropped to 4,574, from 5,335; that’s 761 fewer overdose calls than in 2019. 

Paramedic Unit Chief Tim Lehman, who works at the ambulance station on East Cordova Street in the heart of the DTES, says a lot has changed in the area this past year, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on overdose volumes. One thing remaining constant is an increase in overdoses around cheque day, says Lehman. He is also quick to applaud all the support paramedics receive on the DTES from harm-reduction agencies and volunteers. And, he says, everyone on the DTES has Naloxone. His ambulance station is regularly handing out replacement kits. 

The Vancouver Coastal and Fraser Valley regions continue to have the highest number of overdose calls as they include more than 50 per cent of the province’s population. Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria remain the top communities for overdose calls. 

Several other communities in B.C. experienced a dramatic increase in calls. These communities had lower call volumes than metro areas but felt the impact of dramatic increases in overdoses. 

Community, number of calls and percentage increase:

  • Fort Nelson: 20 calls, up 233%
  • Keremeos: 16 calls, up 167%
  • Sechelt: 87 calls, up 112%
  • Terrace: 208 calls, up 112%
  • Houston: 22 calls, up 100%
For a full list of community overdose call volumes, see Overdose Response in BC Communities (PDF).

To see overdose numbers across the province, and historically, see 2020 Overdose Numbers (PDF). 
SOURCE: Overdose calls increased across the province in 2020 ( )
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