As BC faces an increasing number of drug-overdose deaths, largely the result of fentanyl, police are warning that the potent synthetic painkiller has arrived in Powell River.
Local police are continuing their investigation into the January 30 death of Ryder Hayes, a 22-year-old Powell River man, which they believe involved fentanyl, said Powell River RCMP sergeant Kevin Day.
“We do suspect that fentanyl may have been mixed with heroin with regards to this incident,” said Day, “but we haven’t yet been able to confirm that.”
BC Coroners Service has performed toxicology tests to confirm the presence of fentanyl in Hayes’ blood. Results have not yet been made public.
According to Day, police have also noted an increase in the number of overdose-related patients at Powell River General Hospital’s emergency room over the past few months.
“From what we understand, fentanyl is involved,” said Day. “I wouldn’t say there has been a large spike, but we do know that fentanyl is out there in the community and people need to be aware. An overdose of that is quite possibly lethal.”
More than 450 people died in 2015 as a result of overdose in BC with coroners estimating about one third of those deaths were due to fentanyl.
“We want to put a warning out there that people are taking a risk when they are taking illicit drugs,” said Day. “They are not always fully aware of the content of the drugs they’re taking.”
Fentanyl, originally developed as a prescription painkiller, gained popularity with illicit drug users after OxyContin, another highly-addictive painkiller, was removed from the market in 2013 due to skyrocketing levels of abuse.
Fentanyl can be mixed in with other illicit drugs including pills, heroin or even marijuana.
To fight the epidemic, Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) recently announced it would begin looking into expanding the number of safe-injection sites in Metro Vancouver in provincial harm-reduction programs. Though the health authority’s focus has been on reducing the number of deaths in the city, it has also made efforts to improve services in Powell River.
Mark Lysyshyn, medical health officer and lead for the health authority’s harm-reduction programs, said innovation is required to stem the increasing number of deaths.
“We are really at crisis levels of overdose deaths across the province and region,” said Lysyshyn.
He said one solution might be to provide a supervised injection service to clients, like the one being offered at the Dr. Peter Centre in Vancouver, through existing community harm-reduction programs that already service people who use intravenous drugs.
Lysyshyn claimed that during the time that Vancouver’s Insite program, a supervised injection site, has been open there has not been any overdose deaths inside the monitored facility.
Occasionally, clients who come to needle exchanges for harm-reduction supplies go into the washroom to take drugs, said Lysyshyn.
“Nobody supervises that injection and that person is at risk of overdose,” he added. “It wouldn’t take big changes to certain systems for facilities to be able to offer that service, and wouldn’t really change the nature of clients that are coming to that facility.”
All that would be involved is to make sure someone is aware that drugs are being consumed in the bathroom and for the nurse to check on them to make sure they are okay, he said.
Powell River has a needle exchange and harm-reduction program, but it does not currently have any supervised injection sites.
Lysyshyn explained that the health authority would have to apply to Heath Canada for the ability to offer the service at places like Powell River’s needle exchange, but the federal agency has already set the precedent by approving the Dr. Peter Centre.
“Eventually this does allow us to expand the service to the places like the community health unit in Powell River, although there are not any specific plans for that,” he said.
Powell River Community Health, as part of a provincial harm-reduction program, has run its needle-exchange program out of Powell River General Hospital for the past 20 years.
The program offers a range of information on safer injections, the effects of using drugs, and diseases commonly spread through sharing needles such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis. It also includes safe disposal of returned needles and referrals for confidential HIV and hepatitis testing, detox, drug treatment and counselling.
Meanwhile, VCH and senior government have been working to make Naloxone, a drug used to reverse overdoses, more available and provide awareness programs targeted to intravenous drug users.
“We’re hopeful that it will increase the availability to Naloxone,” he added.
Lysyshyn said the kits and training on how to use them are available in Powell River at the community health unit. He added it was probably more practical in a rural setting for drug users and their families and emergency first responders to have the kits.
“It’s been a successful program, but it is a different kind of intervention,” he added.
Powell River RCMP officers currently do not carry the kits, but Day said the force is looking into it.
Powell River BC Ambulance Service station chief Rob Southcott said his paramedics do carry the drug and in his experience working on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside he has seen countless examples of it saving lives. The overdose remedy can also be administered as a nasal spray.
Southcott added the most important part is to make sure those using the kits have had some training. When a person is overdosing, particularly on opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, the breathing becomes very shallow and death is caused by the drugs stopping respiration.
“Artificial respiration is so important in these cases,” he said.
As station chief, and because of his experience working in Vancouver, Southcott started attending meetings of the Powell River Needle Exchange Advisory Committee so he could understand the local intravenous drug user community, he said.
“Powell River does not have a safe-injection site,” said Southcott, “but in terms of harm reduction, the community is very well looked after by community health.”
Police and health officials are recommending a number of ways to decrease the chance of potential fatal overdoses.
They recommend drug users never use alone, that they always try a small amount of the drugs first before taking a full dose, and never mix drugs with alcohol or sedatives that increases the potential for overdose.
They also encourage education on the signs of overdose and to call 911 in the event of one.