KELOWNA - Front-line social service workers and emergency room staff aren’t the only ones seeing the effects of Kelowna’s opioid crisis.
Funeral homes have barely been able keep up with demand for services as the soaring number of overdose deaths has suddenly added an influx of clients.
Funeral director Jon Everden of Everden Rust Funeral Services in Kelowna said at one point earlier this summer, the company was operating at full capacity and has had to install more equipment to meet demand.
“We’ve been extremely busy with the extra volume. We had to expand our refrigerated area, we were seeing double the normal volume,” Everden said.
“We just put in a another cooler in Penticton so we can accommodate 25 bodies down there. In Kelowna, we had to install another rack system so we could handle another five deceased in our refrigerated area,” he said.
“If we run out of room in the refrigerated area, we legally can’t take any more deceased,” Everden said, pointing out that Consumer Protection B.C. will fine companies as much as $4,000 for violations of the Cremation, Interment and Funeral Services Act.
Everden thinks the surge is directly tied to the opioid crisis that has seen Kelowna suffer one of the highest overdose death rates in Canada.
The Interior Health Authority has confirmed 60 overdose deaths until the end of August this year and is predicting 30 more by year’s end. In 2015 there were 19 overdose deaths reported in Kelowna, jumping to 47 in 2016.
Everden said the jump has meant they sometimes feel pressure to take deliveries from Kelowna General Hospital when it has its own capacity problems in the morgue.
“Sometimes they run out of room and they are putting people on the other side in the autopsy building,” he said. “They will get maxed out and then they are phoning the funeral homes, asking if we have a (release) signature on this one or that one, we need you to get here and pick them up right away.”
Kelowna General Hospital health service administrator Andrew Hughes confirmed the morgue has seen the impact of the overdose emergency, but said it has "processes in place to manage capacity challenges." Hughes said the morgue has been operating between 50 and 75 per cent capacity in the last month and has the capacity to store 22 bodies.
Funeral homes in Kelowna and West Kelowna together have the capacity to store between 35 and 40 bodies, Everden estimated, and will cooperate on storage if one or the other is at capacity.
Local funeral homes have also seen an increased need to apply to the Public Guardian to cover the cost of funeral services for people who die without the means to pay, Everden said.
That has complicated the lack of storage because the funeral home cannot proceed with cremation or burial until the Public Guardian has made sure no immediate family can pay and the deceased has no assets or death benefit that can be recovered.
Everden said that process usually happens quickly but can drag out if the Public Guardian runs into difficulty verifying information, which sometimes means bodies will lie waiting for a week or more.
“It can be very hard on the families, but that’s what we have to do,” he said.
Everden said the type of clients they’ve seen recently proves that overdose deaths aren’t restricted to homeless street addicts.
“Sure there are some of those, but sometimes there is the father that went out on the weekend and didn’t know something was laced,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of average people that you wouldn’t think are using that overdosed.
"One night, one mistake and there goes another life."
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