The first 19 days of March has seen nearly as many overdose and poisoning calls for Penticton emergency crews as the entire month of January.
According to B.C. Emergency Health Services numbers, paramedics responded to 14 calls to suspected overdoses and poisonings between the beginning of March and the 19th. That compares to 15 calls for the entire month of January this year.
And more than half of those calls came last week.
B.C. EHS stats show paramedics responded to eight poisoning and overdose calls for the week ending on March 16, a number that’s just shy of the 10 overdose/poisoning calls in the entire month of January 2017.
In fact, the overdose/poisoning calls do appear to consistently rise over last year’s figures — in January, the number rose to 15 from 10 year over year, and in February, it rose to 20 from 12. Those first two months mark a near-60 per cent rise over the same months last year.
Similarly, if this month keeps track it will likely land just a touch over the 21 overdose/poisoning calls in March 2017, which itself appeared an anomaly. After March last year, calls dropped back down to 16 in April and 14 in May.
But Fire Chief Larry Watkinson — whose firefighters have responded to 30 of the total 49 overdose/poisoning calls so far this year, as well as 16 needle pickups — said it doesn’t feel like the number has risen year over year.
“You almost become numb to it, where you don’t even realize how frequently you’re going out,” he said. “For somebody that is maybe monitoring or picking up the overdoses in the community, it seems like a lot, but for us it’s day-to-day business.”
Watkinson said the shock of overdose responses from a year ago has abated, and that could have some effect on how firefighters view the prevalence of the call.
Indeed, while this year appears to be eclipsing last year’s figures, the data from last year was, in itself, a major spike over 2016. In 2017, the province as a whole saw 23,441 overdose responses from the B.C. EHS, a 21 per cent hike over 2016.
Throughout the Okanagan Valley, however, that spike is far more pronounced at 32 per cent in Kelowna, 40 per cent in Penticton and 89 per cent in Vernon.
But when it comes to determining the actual number of overdose responses in a timely manner, numbers from the Penticton Fire Department and B.C. EHS are imprecise.
The ambulance service, which uses a national system for tracking calls to service, initially groups overdoses with poisonings, and officials need to later separate the two effectively by hand.
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A Provincial Health Services Authority spokesperson said it can take several months to split them up, because it sometimes means acquiring B.C. Coroners Service records or records from the health authority to confirm.
The numbers of specific overdose responses for the Interior Health Authority, tallied on the B.C. CDC website’s overdose dashboard, currently only reach August last year. The PHSA spokesperson noted the dashboard does include a projection for future months, which has painted a fairly accurate picture so far.
Similarly, Watkinson said firefighters only keep track of the calls received by the dispatch centre out of Kelowna, and that doesn’t necessarily translate into complete numbers.
For instance, someone not breathing is called in as cardiac arrest, but could be an overdose that is overlooked by the statistics. Watkinson said in response to the media request, he will be pushing his members to make note of responses after the fact to better classify the data.
Last month, the Western News successfully advocated for the release of the approximate number of suspected overdose deaths in the Penticton area, which B.C. Coroners pegged at up to 20, and likely not fewer than 17.
“We’re trying to identify how we can better classify each type of medical emergencies, so we’re looking at how we can do that now, and better capture that data.”