One staff member at the RainCity Housing homeless shelter in downtown Maple Ridge has saved the lives of 33 people.
All had overdosed on drugs.
“That’s 33 people who otherwise wouldn’t have made it,” said Sean Spear, associate director at RainCity.
Staff at the facility, since it opened in October 2015, have helped more than 100 people who overdosed by administering the life-saving opioid antidote naloxone, he added.
The latest statistics on fatal drug overdoses in B.C. were released Monday, and show that 128 people died from illicit drug overdoses in November.
That makes it the deadliest month so far. The previous high was 82 in January of this year.
The year-to-date death toll is 755 people, compared to 443 for the same time period in 2015.
Fentanyl was detected in 374 deaths this year, or about 60 per cent. That is triple the amount from same time period last year.
The highest number of overdose deaths this year have occurred in Vancouver, with 164 deaths, Surrey, with 92, and Victoria, with 64.
The provincial government has implemented overdose prevention sites in all three cities.
Fraser Health announced Monday that it will implement temporary overdose prevention services in Langley, Abbotsford and Maple Ridge.
The locations in Maple Ridge will be at the RainCity (22239 Lougheed Hwy.) and Salvation Army Ridge Meadows Ministries (22188 Lougheed Hwy.) shelters.
In Maple Ridge, the number of deaths remained steady in 2016. There were 25 in the first 11 months of the year, compared with 29 for all of 2015.
Spear credits staff at the RainCity shelter for preventing more.
“That’s not to minimize the severity of the tragedy that is happening,” said Spear.
The shelter opened on Oct. 1, 2015, and staff were immediately equipped with Narcan kits and trained in their use.
“We knew we had to be doing this as soon as we got there.”
They also train drug users and their “peers” in administering Narcan, and help them acquire kits.
Spear believes the new shelter service is one of the reasons that Maple Ridge has not seen its numbers increase, while other cities have.
“Being isolated, and not having someone there to administer Narcan is a high risk factor,” he said.
Having more Maple Ridge people equipped with Narcan, and more public awareness created in the local fentanyl forum are the kinds of measures that will help the city cope with the overdose crisis, he said.
For the staff and residents of the shelter, coping even with regular non-fatal overdoses has been emotional.
Shelter users talk about the many friends they have lost, and the grief and loss they are experiencing.
Overdosing and being saved with naloxone is also an ordeal.
“It’s been described as being hit by a truck,” said Spear. “It’s not something you just shake off.”
He said RainCity staff are supposed to connect with the people they serve, so dealing with an overdose is more of an ordeal than it might be for an emergency responder.
They have daily conversations with shelter residents, then see them not breathing, turning blue, and not sure whether they will live or die.
“It’s been really challenging on our staff. It has changed the work in a significant way.”
The new overdose prevention services include emergency health resources and outreach personnel to prevent and reverse overdoses and to get people out of the cold weather. These services will be available at shelters, and on an outreach basis to monitor and observe people at risk for overdose and respond immediately to health concerns. There will be no supervision of illicit drug consumption.
“The need to act quickly in the face of the ongoing elevated overdose numbers is paramount,” said Health Minister Terry Lake. “Overdose prevention services help save lives by ensuring people with the skills to respond are in close proximity in the event an overdose happens.”
Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe reiterated that drugs should not be used alone, Naloxone should be on hand, and suggested using safe injection sites or overdose prevention sites.