VERNON - Staff at Vernon Jubilee Hospital recorded more drug overdoses than their counterparts in Kelowna and Kamloops over the past ten months.
From June 1, 2016 to March 31, 2017, 174 suspected opioid overdose cases were recorded at the Vernon Jubilee Hospital emergency department, according to a surveillance report from the Interior Health Authority.
That’s compared to 161 at Kelowna General Hospital and 136 at Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops. The data suggests that 26 per cent of all 682 overdoses recorded throughout the Interior Health region are from Vernon.
At first glance, it might appear that Vernon has a disproportionately high number of overdoses given its population of roughly 40,000, compared to Kelowna’s 127,500 and Kamloops’ 90,000. But medical health officer Dr. Silvina Mema says there’s likely a reason for that.
She says there’s some variation in how hospitals within the region record overdoses — one factor being the amount of time staff have to complete the patient survey.
“It may be that those overdoses that go to Vernon, Vernon is reporting all of them and Kelowna General Hospital is not,” Mema says.
Another reason Vernon might be over-represented is the hospital’s involvement in a pilot project to make reporting overdoses easier. Immediately after the state of emergency was declared over the overdose crisis, Interior Health began asking emergency department staff to fill out a paper survey for patients suffering a suspected drug overdose. The pilot in Vernon, which has been underway for several months, involves an electronic system that makes reporting quicker and more efficient.
“Vernon championed the new system,” Mema says. “Because Vernon was a success we’ll bring it in to the rest of the health authority.”
She says another reason it doesn’t make sense to say there are more overdoses in Vernon is because the number of deaths reported by the B.C. Coroners Service doesn’t support it. In 2016, 13 people died of suspected drug overdoses in Vernon, compared to 47 in Kelowna and 41 in Kamloops.
Based on population, Vernon has a per capita overdose death rate just shy of Kelowna’s. Overdose death rates around the region come out to roughly 33 deaths per 100,000 people in Vernon, almost 37 per 100,000 people in Kelowna and 45 per 100,000 people in Kamloops.
There are a variety of factors contributing to the number of overdoses, Mema says, but the one thing that health officials know for certain is the situation is becoming more dire in the Interior.
“The bottom line is the Okanagan is not getting any better. The deaths and the overdoses continue to increase,” Mema says.
And the rising numbers are being felt by those on the front lines — first responders, doctors, nurses.
North Okanagan health service administrator Richard Harding says the growing number of overdose cases is keeping Vernon Jubilee Hospital’s emergency department busy.
“Given the magnitude of the overdose epidemic, we do see the impact in our emergency department. They (medical staff) are front and centre to the response,” Harding says.
Treating overdoses is nothing new for medical staff in the emergency department, but the volume is.
“We have periods of time where there’s a spike in activity. That can be reflective of what’s happening in the wider community,” Harding says.
But, Harding says the hospital is well equipped to deal with the increasing volume.
“We’re ready to respond to the peaks and demands as they are presented,” he says. “If we feel the workload is above the capacity of the department, we will call in additional staffing as required.”
Assistance programs are available for any hospital staff who might require support after treating an overdose, or any other medical emergency, Harding says.
The impacts of the overdose epidemic are also being felt at Vernon Fire and Rescue Services. Interim Vernon Fire Chief David Lind couldn’t say exactly how many calls the department responded to in recent months, but said “it’s been high for a while.”
“Generally, there seems to be an increase over the last year, year-and-a-half,” he says.
Figures from B.C. Emergency Health Services suggest a growing number of people are calling 911 for overdoses in Vernon. In March of this year, 31 calls for overdoses were made. By comparison, the number of calls was so low in March of 2016 they couldn’t be released for privacy reasons.
Fire Department members have received Narcan training and all rescue units are equipped with overdose reversal kits, Lind says. There are also programs in place to support staff experiencing any emotional or physical impacts from a call.
“Responder wellbeing is always a concern,” Lind says.
He says the added call volume is nothing the department can’t manage.
“We are always watching our calls, and looking for peak hours and peak areas of concern. We deploy the resources as we need to to address the demand. We continue to do that,” he says.
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