911 overdose calls break B.C. records, users 'going down everywhere'

One of the record-breaking 494 overdose calls to 911 this week in the Lower Mainland was for Kelli Lubbers.

Bicycle paramedics armed with naloxone combing alleys at epicentre of battle to save lives

'I don't want to die,' said 12-year-long user Kelli Lubbers, who overdosed for the first time last week after taking half of her usual dose of what she was told was heroin. (Errol Richardson/CBC)

One of the record-breaking 494 overdose calls to 911 this week in Metro Vancouver was for Kelli Lubbers. 

Lubbers, who's been using drugs for 12 years, says it "blew her mind" when half her usual dose of what she thought was heroin almost killed her.

"It's crazy. It's ridiculous. Everybody is dropping like flies," said the 38-year-old regular on the Downtown Eastside.

Kelli Lubbers has used drugs for 12 years and says she could not believe it when her usual dose almost killed her last week. (Errol Richardson/CBC)

Lubbers wants the government to do more to stem the crisis, saying she fears for her life, but can't stop taking drugs. 

"I don't want to die. Not all of us junkies are out here to end our lives. Some of us are just sitting in purgatory waiting," she said, adding she is trying to put her life back together.

"In the meantime we are just stuck addicted to something. I don't choose to be down here, and I definitely don't choose to die, and that's pretty much what the odds are becoming now and it's scary."

Province stepping up funding

On Friday, B.C.'s health minister pledged $5 million in funding to help first responders address the worsening situation.

Paramedics on bicycles are outfitted with the life-saving gear an ambulance carries and are now responding overdoses, as they can often get there quicker than ambulances. There is a second group of volunteers — called Spikes on Bikes — equipped with life-saving naloxone kits.

A paramedic pedals through the Downtown Eastside equipped with the tools to save people who are overdosing. (Errol Richardson/CBC)

Overdose calls to 911 have broken all known records in the Lower Mainland this week, hitting almost 500 by Friday, with two main hot-spots:

  • 271 in the Downtown Eastside.
  • 81 in Surrey.

But the crisis is not limited to Metro Vancouver. 

On Vancouver Island, health officials reported four deaths in a 72-hour period were fentanyl-related.

They urge people not to use alone, and called street drugs "more potent and dangerous" than they'd ever seen.

Buying street drugs a gamble

Health officials warn that many street drugs contain fentanyl, but that's not the only concern. 

This week, Vancouver Police warned that deadly carfentanil hit B.C. streets in September.

The elephant sedative is 100 times more potent than fentanyl and is linked to a wave of U.S. deaths.

Another response unit through the Vancouver Coastal Health and PHS Community Services Society also has volunteers riding on bicycles through, equipped with naloxone kits to help in overdose situations. (Errol Richardson/CBC)

But there has not been any confirmation yet on whether it is involved in the recent spike in overdoses here.

"We're not clear yet ... what we do know is whether it's carfentanil or just very, very potent fentanyl, the result is the same thing. Within minutes people are going down everywhere," said Linda Lupini, vice president of B.C. Emergency Health Services.

Weary volunteers ready to drop

Susan Oulette, a volunteer at a pop-up injection site in the Downtown Eastside, said she's glad that more people are now helping out.

"Just people are showing up. It's just good to see. I just wish it wasn't so late," she said.

Oulette grew teary when asked if the situation is taking a toll on her. 

Vancouver volunteer Susan Oulette is exhausted after weeks of 10-hour shifts at a pop-up injection clinic, trying to slow the tide of overdoses. (Errol Richardson/CBC)

"It is. I'm pretty tired. I'm tired," she said. "I go home at night and I feel crappy because I'm leaving and ambulances are passing me by, but there is only so much a person can do."

Oulette said more volunteers are still needed. 

"If you can use Narcan [or naloxone] and keep your eggs in a basket, this is where we need you, right here."

With files from Brenna Rose