KELOWNA - A clearly rattled city council heard from the Interior Health Authority Monday afternoon about Kelowna's grim claim to fame: the overdose rate capital of Canada.
A presentation by medical health officer Dr. Silvina Mema ticked off some of the startling statistics; 60 deaths recorded to the end of August (with another 15 or so likely in the last two months) and a possible 90 by the end of the year if the death rate continues marking an overdose death rate that's higher than Vancouver.
Mema, along with chief medical health officer Dr. Trevor Corneil, led a large contingent of health authority members who in turn stepped up to deal with the many different council questions and comments, some of them pointing back at the health authority.
The biggest question seemed to be 'how can council help’, a theme Coun. Charlie Hodge framed against the recent death of a relative to cocaine. A clearly frustrated and emotional Hodge said he’d been hoping to hear concrete solutions from the health authority beyond the information Mema presented.
“I need some idea how I as an individual, what can I do? I don’t want to wait for more reports, I want to help now,” he said. “I keep hoping something will happen but feel like we have one foot nailed to the floor, and we’re going around and around. We can’t keep doing this.”
Hodge at one point suggested that Kelowna may be the victim of the IHA's success in offering an array of harm reduction services, in turn attracting tourists and transients who end up dying here and boosting our statistics.
However Corneil said internal tracking shows the majority of overdose victims do actually live in Kelowna when their death is reported, most often involving the synthetic opioid fentanyl and people using drugs alone.
Males 30-49 are the largest demographic but Mema couldn’t stress too often in her presentation about how the opioid crisis in Kelowna is cutting across all the socio-economic spectrum.
She said the perception that it’s just street involved homeless people dying is provably false and requires a new response and a new community dialogue about how Kelowna should respond.
Coun. Luke Stack said someone he knew had problems accessing detox services because of cutbacks within the health authority, however Mema explained detox for opioid users is actually more dangerous than beneficial because of the risk of relapse and overdose when users lose their drug tolerance.
Instead, the health authority is rapidly expanding its methadone/suboxone therapy program, lowering the barriers for entry and increasing access points.
Corneil acknowledged the health authority is still scrambling to respond to the rapidly developing opioid crisis, with Kelowna as the unexpected epicentre, but said the system is shifting to meet the need as quickly as possible.
Mayor Colin Basran in closing said he thought all of council “can feel the weight” of the sobering overdose death statistics.
“I echo the frustration that there’s no silver bullet that will solve this tomorrow,” Basran said.
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