Overdose deaths increased on the Central Island in 2020, and Port Alberni’s Community Action Team (CAT) says the crisis has been exacerbated by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Port Alberni CAT coordinator Mary Clare Massicotte and co-chair Ron Merk attended a virtual meeting of Port Alberni city council on Monday, Feb. 8, where they presented statistics from the past year. In 2020, drug toxicity deaths increased by more than 50 percent on the Central Island, as numbers rose from 36 deaths in 2019 to 58 deaths in 2020.
The CAT classifies the Central Island as Tofino to Parksville, Duncan to Courtenay, excluding numbers from Nanaimo. Information from the BC Coroners Service shows that there were 11 overdose fatalities in the Alberni-Clayoquot region alone in 2020.
“That’s a huge increase in one year in our community,” said Massicotte.
But the opioid crisis is not just a Central Island concern. According to the BC Coroners Service, 2020 was the deadliest year of the crisis in the province’s history, with roughly five fatal overdoses a day across B.C.
Merk attributed most of this increase to COVID-19 and the provincial restrictions associated with it.
“We were in the right trend in 2019,” he told council. “Then, unfortunately for everybody, COVID-19 came along. What we have seen is the numbers have gone off the board even worse than when [the CAT] started in 2017. That’s the biggest cause-and-effect that we see. The worse COVID got, the worse the overdose crisis got.”
As community services were put on hold, he added, people ended up going to places where they used alone. Increased stress also caused the need to use.
Merk explained that the majority of the overdose deaths in 2020 happened to men between the ages of 25 and 55 who lived in single-family dwelling units.
Port Alberni city council thanked the CAT last month for their work in the community.
“If we can fight stigma and reduce stigma, that would be half the battle,” said Councillor Helen Poon. “For people to come forward and get the help that they need.”
Merk agreed that stigma is “the single biggest driving force” of the overdose crisis.
“Not only for marginalized people, but for families, people who are using substances, it is so destructive,” he told council. “Everything tells us in the last 10-15 years, we need to get to a safe drug supply, we need to get to decriminalization of drugs and we have to move to a model…which puts forward the fact that drug use is basically an illness that needs to be supported by fixing the social problems that created it in the first place.”
Port Alberni’s CAT has been working on a few different projects since the novel coronavirus pandemic began to try and combat the overdose crisis.
The CAT has helped to fund a peer outreach “Bridging the Gap” program, where people who have lived experience with the opioid crisis deliver harm reduction equipment to the marginalized community. The goal, said Merk, is to foster a relationship with those who are living with substance use illness while homeless.
With help from the Port Alberni Friendship Centre and outreach legal advocate Steve Muise, the CAT also started up a photo ID clinic up once a month to assist people who have lost their identification.
“If you’re a marginalized person that lives on the street, it becomes a barrier that is almost impossible to go through,” explained Merk. “If you don’t have your ID, it prevents you from getting services that could be necessary. You basically lose access to all the social supports that the rest of us take for granted.”
Admission to the clinic is by appointment. People can contact Muise at the Friendship Centre (250-723-8281) to set up an appointment.
In 2020, the CAT also completed a “Humans First” survey with funding from the First Nations Health Authority. With this survey, 30 Indigenous individuals with lived experience were asked a number of open-ended questions, to help give insight and suggestions for gaps in services and possible solutions.
Some of the key findings of the report note that access to affordable housing, stigma and access to supports and services are three of the biggest issues driving the opioid crisis in First Nations communities.
Merk noted that Indigenous populations are disproportionally represented when it comes to overdose deaths.
“That’s a major concern for us,” he said. “The trauma they’ve experienced has driven some of those numbers.”
Merk said the CAT is hoping to draft up the second stage of this report in 2021 with help from Alberni Community and Women’s Services Society (ACAWS), which will include action items.
Over the past few months CAT has also been promoting the use of the new “Lifeguard” app, which is designed to help people using illicit drugs get help if they overdose.
To learn more about Port Alberni’s Community Action Team—or to access resources for people with lived experience and their families—visit their website at ptalbcat.blogspot.com or visit their Facebook page. The team currently provides a support group for families that meets virtually once a month.