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Suspected overdose deaths surge on Coast over Christmas holidays

RCMP confirms three deaths and at least two ‘severe overdoses’
Photo by Dan Toulgoet

Sunshine Coast residents who use drugs of any kind are being cautioned about a likely contaminated supply that reportedly left four people dead in the past week, leading one advocate to describe the situation as “an emergency.”

On Dec. 23 the Sunshine Coast Division of Family Practice circulated an overdose alert, warning of “multiple severe overdoses reported in Sechelt” and advising people to use the Overdose Prevention Site (OPS) at 5653 Wharf Avenue.Sunshine Coast RCMP Const. Karen Whitby confirmed officers responded to three fatal overdoses and two others severe enough to require hospitalization. “They almost died,” Whitby said.

The deceased were in their thirties and forties. 

Sean Ramsay, Community Action Team coordinator, told Coast Reporter Thursday that four people have died after taking drugs around the time the alert was circulated. As well, “multiple overdoses” occurred.

Two people died after using ketamine, also known as “Special K,” and occurred at private residences, according to Ramsay. The two other deaths occurred due to “possible fentanyl-laced cocaine.”

The Coroners Service has not confirmed cause of death. 

None of the deaths were connected to people who regularly use the Overdose Prevention Site or RainCity Housing services offered on the Coast, said Ramsay.

“These were folks from the broader community, they weren’t clients… nor did they live in the homeless community.”

He urged people who use drugs, even recreationally, to take precautions due to a likely contaminated supply circulating on the Sunshine Coast. “It’s an emergency,” said Ramsay. Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) told Coast Reporter it issued “another reminder to the Sunshine Coast community to avoid using substance alone and to visit our overdose prevention site.” Take-home fentanyl and benzodiazepine test strips, naloxone kits and other harm reduction supplies are available at the VCH-funded OPS, which is open daily from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., including New Year’s Eve. OPS staff can provide tutorials.

People are also advised not to use drugs alone. 

Supplies are also available to the public at the Upper Deck shelter at 5653 Wharf Ave in Sechelt, which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “That’s open to anyone at all. The services are 100 per cent anonymous. People will provide you with what you need, no questions asked,” said Ramsay.Harm reduction supplies are also available at the supportive housing complexes in Gibsons and Sechelt. Take home naloxone kits are available at participating pharmacies, including London Drugs and the Medicine Shoppe in ts'uk̲w'um (Wilson Creek) and several pharmacies in Sechelt.  “The broader community of recreational drug users may not be as prepared for such an [overdose] event,” said Ramsay, adding people should not hesitate to administer naloxone and first aid if an overdose occurs, and while waiting for first responders to arrive.

Four people died of overdose or drug poisonings on the Sunshine Coast between the months of January and August, according to statistical reporting by the Coroners Service, putting the death rate at 18.7 per 100,000 people for that period. The death rate for the same period in Powell River was 64.4 per 100,000 people.

In 2021, the death rate on the Sunshine Coast was nearly 38 per 100,000 people. 

Sunshine Coast first responders saw a jump in emergency calls related to overdoses this year. Between January and Nov. 30, BC Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) responded to 133 “potential overdose/poisoning patient events” in Sechelt and 41 in Gibsons, according to the agency. By comparison, BCEHS responded to 83 calls in Sechelt and 37 calls in Gibsons for the entirety of 2021. VCH told Coast Reporter that based on statistical reporting by the Coroners Service "there is currently no evidence to indicate a relative increase in overdose risk to people using substances on the Sunshine Coast." The reporting period for the cited data ended Oct. 31. 

Ramsay said the recent deaths have had a “huge ripple effect.” 

“It’s a huge impact on such a small community,” he said. “These deaths were preventable.”

VCH said it is “committed to continuing to provide services and supports to people who use substances on the Sunshine Coast as part of our ongoing work to address the illicit drug toxicity crisis. ”People interested in receiving alerts about contaminated drugs can text “alert” to VCH-managed texting service: (236) 999-3673. People are also encouraged to complete an anonymous survey if an overdose occurs, in order to assist with public awareness about contaminated supply.