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B.C. paramedics respond to record number of overdose calls in 2021

FILE PHOTO - B.C. Emergency Health Services responded to over 35,000 overdose calls in 2021.
Image Credit: SUBMITTED/KGH Foundation

B.C. paramedics responded to a record-breaking 35,525 overdose calls in 2021.

Every day nearly 100 people overdose and over the pandemic calls have steadily increased, according to a B.C. Emergency Health Services media release.

Call volumes significantly increased in Surrey by almost 50% from the previous year.

“Overdoses are a regular part of every paramedic shift in Surrey,” unit chief Mike Topping said in the release.

The Northern Health Authority reported a 16% increase, the smallest among health authorities, emergency health services said.

Usually in the top-five communities for overdose calls, Prince George dropped off the top-five list and was replaced by Abbotsford.

Vancouver Coastal had a 24% increase with 11,204 calls, Fraser Health had a 45% increase with 10,573 calls, Island Health had a 32% increase with 5,917 calls, Interior Health had a 29% increase with 5,417 calls, and Northern Health a 16% increase with 2,414 calls.

There were 1,068 overdose calls in Kamloops, 1,588 calls in Kelowna, 748 in Penticton and 475 in Vernon in 2021.

Vancouver Coastal and the Fraser Valley regions have the highest number of overdose calls due to the high populations. Vancouver, Surrey, and Victoria are the top communities for overdose calls.

READ MORE: More paramedics, ambulances needed in Thompson-Okanagan

Almost every community in B.C. had more overdose patients in 2021 than the previous year.

As overdose calls continue to increase paramedics are administering more Naloxone than ever before. Paramedics are responding to patients who are in cardiac arrest, which takes more time to stabilize the patient before they can be taken to the hospital. When responding to overdose calls, paramedics deal with patient complications including aspiration, trauma, frostbite and withdrawal symptoms.

Many overdose deaths occur because people are using alone, and there’s no one around to call 9-1-1.

Troy Clifford, president of the Ambulance Paramedics of B.C., said in an interview Thursday that the union knew the numbers were rising but it hadn't realized the extent of the increase until the report was released.

"We knew the numbers were going up because (paramedics) see it on every shift," he said. "It takes a toll on them. The numbers of our members off and in treatment because of psychological injuries is incredible, and the opioid epidemic is definitely a significant part of that."

He said staffing shortages have been a problem for years, but the union has been working closely with the government to fill the gaps.

In July, the provincial government said it was overhauling the ambulance service to reduce wait times after numerous complaints about long delays during medical emergencies. It also announced in December it would be adding 85 full-time paramedics, 65 dispatchers and 22 new ambulances.

"We need more recruiting to combat the shortages. We also need to have additional resources, more ambulances and more dispatchers because the evidence is showing us we have not met the national benchmark for answering calls," said Clifford.

The union is also calling for more mental health and addiction resources for the general public to relieve some of the pressure on first responders, Clifford added.

"You can't always just default to calling an ambulance," he said. "If it's not the best care (option) for those patients, then we need to find the right routes and have those supports available in the community."

The Coroners Service has said illicit drug overdoses are the leading cause of unnatural deaths in the province, with about six people dying each day.

— With files from The Canadian Press

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