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They’ve saved hundreds of lives. Will B.C. provide a safe drug supply to help save theirs?


“One by one, we’re losing our colleagues. Coming into work finding out someone that you know has passed away. It’s the worst thing in the world. How much more crying can we do?” — Sarah Blyth

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Harm reduction workers on the front lines of Vancouver’s opioid crisis have mourned the deaths of four co-workers in the last 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 drug deaths that’s already killed more than 1,700 British Columbians 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 peer workers to run three safe injection sites in the Downtown Eastside.

“Coming into work finding out someone that you know has passed away. It’s the worst thing in the world. How much more crying can we do?”

Joy Phelps at the Molson Overdose Prevention Site in Vancouver on May 15, 2019. Phelps was found dead in her home from a drug overdose on Nov. 3, 2021.
Joy Phelps at the Molson Overdose Prevention Site in Vancouver on May 15, 2019. Phelps was found dead in her home from a drug overdose on Nov. 3, 2021. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /PNG

One of their co-workers, 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 canvas the alleys of the Downtown Eastside with Narcan in hand. Like a true hero, she would bring those overdosing back to life with a quick pump of the drug into their nose.

“Joy had been with us from the very beginning, as one of our first peer workers since we opened the site in 2016,” said Blyth. “She had dreams of one day being a nurse, but struggled on and off with drugs.”

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Phelps was found dead in her home from a toxic drug overdose on Nov. 3. The OPS community gathered for her memorial last month.

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

“All of a sudden you’re with this person one day laughing and telling jokes and the next day they’re gone,” said the 39-year-old. “It’s not ‘if’ the rest who struggle with drug use will die but ‘when.’”

Helten, who spent his 20s living on the Downtown Eastside battling opioid use disorder, said for people who are not ready to seek treatment or those who relapse, a regulated supply is key.

“For me, it took a lot of tries to recover,” said Helten, who is now five years’ sober.

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Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe announced Thursday that 201 people are suspected to have died of a toxic drug overdose in October alone — the highest recorded number of deaths for a single month. This will be the worst year on record, as the province has already recorded 1,782 suspected illicit drug toxicity deaths between January and October.

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

“Only a small number of programs are providing a safe supply, there’s not even making a dent in the deaths that we’re seeing,” said Blyth. “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 illicit drugs.

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Lapointe said while it’s an essential step to end the decades-long war on drugs, even if approved right away, it won’t end the profit-driven, unregulated drug market, which continues to put people in harm’s way.

“The only way is to provide access to safe (drug) supply,” Lapointe said. “We don’t have time to wait months and years to continue to look for evidence that safe supply will work. We know from studies it does work.”

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 sole prescriber, Dr. Mark Tyndall, the former director of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, said expanding the program’s scale has proven tricky due to a lack of willing prescribers.

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“There was initially another doctor prescribing for MySafe along with me, but they pulled out once they were audited by the B.C. College Physicians and Surgeons,” Tyndall said. “So far, the college hasn’t gone after me yet.”

With a majority of doctors and pharmacists reluctant to prescribe opioids, Vancouver Coastal Health chief medical officer Dr. Patricia Daly agreed that a non-medicalized model of safe supply urgently needs to be implemented.

“We know there are tens of thousands of people at overdose risk and despite provincial investments the B.C. Ministry of Health and Addictions said it has given that things are getting worse,” Daly said last week.

“We need to be brave and look outside of the box.”

sgrochowski@postmedia.com

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