The number of people using opioid treatment programs in the Alberni Valley has increased over the last year, but there is still more work to be done to combat the opioid crisis, says Port Alberni’s Community Action Team (CAT).
The CAT’s coordinator, Mark Lacroix, was in city council chambers on Tuesday, Oct. 15 to present some statistics that came from medical health officer Dr. Paul Hasselback. Between January 2016 and June 2019, Lacroix explained, there were 30 overdose fatalities in the Alberni Valley, with eight fatalities occurring in the last 12 months.
Overdose deaths are a 4:1 male to female ratio, added Lacroix, and fall under a broad age range, with “a bit of a skew” towards 40+ years of age. Ninety percent of overdose deaths are happening in private residences, and more than 90 percent of overdose deaths had fentanyl detected in them.
Emergency 911 calls for overdoses in the Alberni Valley are averaging between two and six a week, while BC Ambulance Service responds to an average of one to three calls a week. West Coast General Hospital has been treating an average of two overdoses per week over the last 12 weeks.
Last year, the province allocated $1.5 million to establish CATs in 18 communities across the province, including Port Alberni. Port Alberni’s CAT is a community-led initiative aimed at decreasing the number of opioid poisonings and overdose deaths in the Alberni Valley. The team includes community members, people with lived experience and representatives from community organizations, Indigenous organizations, health authorities, local government, law enforcement and business.
“This is a pretty broad group, and we all sit at the same table,” explained Lacroix, who is a former BC Ambulance Service paramedic.
Lacroix says that the provincial opioid crisis cannot be approached just from the perspective of enforcement—harm reduction, treatment and prevention initiatives are also needed. The team’s goal in its first year has been “building a supportive environment,” especially through addressing stigma.
Lacroix emphasized on Tuesday that stigma contributes to the fact that 90 percent of overdose deaths are occurring in private residences, while people are using alone.
“The Community Action Team values having courageous conversations,” Lacroix said on Tuesday. “What jumps out at me here is people live and act in dark silence, so we’re trying to break down those walls of stigma.”
Some of the CAT’s successes over the past year include increased prevention work in the Alberni Valley with a Youth Harm Reduction Roundtable at Alberni District Secondary School, as well as increased treatment programs in the Alberni-Clayoquot Regional District. Opioid agonist therapy (OAT) has been used to treat addiction to opioid drugs through medications that prevention withdrawal and reduce cravings. The Alberni Valley has seen a 144 percent increase in people on OAT, explained Lacroix, although he did not have an exact number figure for this statistic.
“This is one of the higher increases for Island communities,” he added.
Over the next year, the CAT is going to focus their attention on the Indigenous population, which is “over-represented” in the provincial crisis, said Lacroix. The team will also be looking further at some of the statistics presented by Hasselback, including people using drugs alone and in private residences and the 4:1 male to female ratio.
“That’s where we’re going to focus our attention this year.”
Councillor Ron Corbeil wondered out loud if there is a shortage of treatment facilities in the Alberni Valley. Lacroix agreed that the shortage does exist, but that the province needs to step in to help fund this.
“If there’s anything that we can do as far as drafting a letter on behalf of the city, maybe that’s something our Community Action Team can do with Mayor and Council,” Lacroix said.
For those who want more information about the CAT’s work in the Alberni Valley, there will be a public information session at the Best Western Plus Barclay Hotel on Thursday, Oct. 24 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.