Wed. Aug 17th, 2022

“One by one, we lose our colleagues. Getting to work to find out someone you know has passed away. That’s the worst thing in the world. How much more can we cry?” – Sarah Blyth

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Injury-reducing workers on the front lines of Vancouver’s opioid crisis have mourned the deaths of four employees in the past two months, and now they are calling for an immediate increase in the safe supply of prescription drugs to prevent a tidal wave of toxic drugs. deaths that have already killed more than 1,700 British Colombians this year.

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“One by one, we’re losing our colleagues,” said Sarah Blyth, director of Vancouver’s Overdose Prevention Society, which employs 100 peers to operate three safe injection sites in Downtown Eastside.

“Coming to work to find out someone you know is gone. It’s the worst thing in the world. How much more can we cry?”

Joy Phelps at the Molson Overdose Prevention Site in Vancouver on May 15, 2019. Phelps was found dead in his home by an overdose of drugs on November 3, 2021.
Joy Phelps at the Molson Overdose Prevention Site in Vancouver on May 15, 2019. Phelps was found dead in his home by an overdose of drugs on November 3, 2021. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

One of their employees, Joy Phelps, saved hundreds of lives before hers came to a tragic end last month.

Despite freezing rain or snow, the 44-year-old would sail the alleys of Downtown Eastside with Narcan in hand. Like a true hero, she would bring those who overdosed back to life with a quick pump of the drug in her nose.

“Joy had been with us from the very beginning, as one of our first peer employees since we opened since 2016,” Blyth said. “She had dreams of one day becoming a nurse, but struggled to and fro with drugs.”

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Phelps was found dead in his home by an overdose of toxic substance on November 3rd. The OPS community gathered for her memorial last month.

General manager Trey Helten said the Overdose Prevention Society said Phelps was one of four employees in the last two months they had lost.

“Suddenly you are with this person one day and laugh and tell jokes and the next day they are gone,” the 39-year-old said. “It’s not ‘if’ the rest who struggle with drug use die, but ‘when’.”

The hero, who spent his 20s living in Downtown Eastside in the fight against opioid use disorders, said that for people who are not ready to seek treatment or those who are relapsing, a regulated supply is key.

“For me, it took many attempts to recover,” said the Hero, who is now five years sober.

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Coroner Lisa Lapointe announced on Thursday that 201 people are suspected of dying from a toxic overdose in October alone – the highest number of deaths recorded in a single month. This will be the worst year ever, as the province has already registered 1,782 suspected deaths in connection with illegal drug poisoning between January and October.

Blyth and Helten said only a rapid increase in safe delivery of prescription drugs can slow the current death rate.

“Only a small number of programs provide a secure supply that is not even a dent in the deaths we see,” Blyth said. “They need a doctor or someone to give them access to something they know.”

In November, the province asked for an exemption from the federal government to decriminalize illegal drugs.

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Lapointe said that while ending the decades-long war on drugs is a significant step, even if approved immediately, it will not end the profit-driven, unregulated drug market that continues to endanger people.

“The only way is to provide access to secure (drug) supply,” Lapointe said. “We do not have time to wait months and years to continue looking for evidence that secure supply will work. We know from studies that it works.”

Alternatives to illicit drugs, such as MySafe, which operates three vending machines that dispense prescription hydromorphone tablets, a substitute for heroin, to 70 high-risk opioid users, one option.

MySafe’s only prescribing physician, Dr. Mark Tyndall, the former director of the BC Center for Disease Control, said it has proved difficult to expand the scope of the program due to the lack of willing prescribing physicians.

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“There was originally another doctor who prescribed MySafe with me, but they withdrew when they were audited by BC College Physicians and Surgeons,” Tyndall said. “So far, the college has not gone after me yet.”

With a majority of physicians and pharmacists reluctant to prescribe opioids, Vancouver Coastal Health’s chief physician was Dr. Patricia Daly agrees that a non-medicated model of secure supply should be implemented immediately.

“We know there are tens of thousands of people at risk of overdose, and despite provincial investment, the BC Ministry of Health and Addiction said it has made things worse,” Daly said last week.

“We have to be brave and look out of the box.”

sgrochowski@postmedia.com

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