British Columbia

Lead physician at B.C. addiction clinic says more treatment beds and a safer drug supply needed to save lives

The Rapid Access Addiction Clinic at St. Paul's Hospital has helped over 4,000 patients access treatment for opioid addiction since the public health emergency was declared in 2016. But Dr. Mark McLean says more needs to be done.

Dr. Mark McLean says patients can wait up to 8 weeks for residential treatment

People gather at a rally in support of a safe supply of drugs in Vancouver in June. The last day of August is International Overdose Awareness Day and the lead physician of an addiction access clinic in the city is adding his voice to the call for clean drugs to prevent deaths. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Over 4,000 patients have accessed treatment for opioid addiction at the Rapid Access Addiction Clinic in Vancouver but the clinic's lead physician, Dr. Mark McLean, says more needs to be done.

The clinic, which is located adjacent to the emergency department at St. Paul's Hospital in the city's West End, opened in 2016 after the province declared the overdose crisis a public health emergency. It accepts patients, with or without a referral, who meet with clinic staff to create an addiction treatment plan best suited to their needs.

The problem, says McLean, is there are still too many patients, too many tainted drugs on the street and not enough treatment beds.

"It's a numbers game," said McLean Monday on The Early Edition. "If we can get more people into treatment than numbers of deaths should go down."

And the number of deaths have recently gone up.

The B.C. Coroners Service saw 177 fatalities in June, which surpassed the previous high of 174 deaths in May. In July, 175 people died of an illicit drug overdose. 

A statement said the service has detected "a sustained increase" of illicit drug toxicity deaths since the first peak of the pandemic in March, and it's now confirming five straight months with more than 100 such deaths.

People line up outside a safe drug supply tent during in Vancouver in June. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

McLean says the stress of COVID-19, the increased likelihood people are using alone because of physical distancing measures and less predictability in the illicit drug supply because of supply disruptions during the pandemic are some of the reasons deaths are rising.

Officials have said border closures during the pandemic have disrupted the usual flow of fentanyl into B.C., leading the supply to be replaced by unstable and unpredictable substances produced locally by those who might be inexperienced

That problem, said McLean, could be helped with a regulated drug supply where users know the concentration of the drugs they are using, similar to how the percentage of alcohol in a beverage is visible to the drinker.

"When we do that, it's likely there would be substantially less overdose deaths," said McLean.

He said more residential treatment beds are also a key component needed to address the current crisis and that often patients have to wait six to eight weeks to access a facility.

In the meantime, McLean says, medications such as methadone, Suboxone and hydromorphone can help. So can having someone on your side if you are struggling with substance use issues.

"People, I think, benefit just from the contact with our staff," said McLean.

Overdose Awareness Day

Monday is International Overdose Awareness Day. It's a global event to acknowledge those who have died as a result of drug overdoses and to reduce the stigma of drug-related deaths.

To mark the occasion, Moms Stop The Harm, a network of Canadian families impacted by substance use-related harms and deaths, hung hundreds of pairs of shoes on the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver to represent the people who died of an illicit drug overdose in May, June and July.

On Aug. 25, B.C. Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe, called for the erasure of the stigma surrounding substance use. 

"Given the toxicity of the drug supply, now is the time for all of us to demonstrate compassion and empathy," said Lapointe.

Last month, B.C. Premier John Horgan called for a national plan to help stem the overdose crisis

Judy Darcy, B.C.'s minister of mental health and addictions, said the province has escalated its response to the overdose crisis in an effort "to counter the effects of the pandemic."

"British Columbians showed the world what we could do when it came to COVID-19 ... We must do the same for the overdose public health emergency in this province and we must do it now," she said in a statement.

About 5,000 people in B.C. have died of illicit-drug overdoses since the public health emergency was declared, more deaths than homicides, motor vehicle incidents, suicides and COVID-19 combined.

With files from The Early Edition

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