Social Isolation is a killer

sdf-5037132_1920.jpgToday, August 31, 2020, is International Opioid Awareness Day and we need to talk about it.

2020 has been hard on everyone but in BC the opioid crisis has increased and is more concerning than ever.

United Way is working with local community partner agencies across the region to offer support and help to those with substance use issues and mental health concerns. As overdose numbers continue to rise we continue to support our communities as they battle this crisis.

In BC last year, there were 984 illicit drug toxicity deaths; by the end of July 2020, there were already 909. These statistics are beyond troubling. We hope that our community development efforts will help protect our neighbours and impact the number of people who are struggling with these issues. 

Read about an amazing United Way funded, Comox Bay-based mobile outreach program that is making a difference for vulnerable people below.

Social Isolation is a killer

*All names in this story have been changed 

Being told to isolate from friends and family isn’t what anyone wants to hear, and it can take a heavy toll on your mental health. But it can immediately become a matter of life and death for those without homes and for people who use opioids.

Losing the few connections you have to things like healthcare services, or to a friend who watches over you when you use can turn an overdose into a death. That’s why mobile outreach services like this Comox Bay-based program and its advocacy of the new Lifeguard app have been essential during this pandemic.

Keeping people connected and saving lives

Bob has been using Comox Bay-based mobile outreach services for six years. For Duncan, it’s been the last four or five.

Rick began using the services about when the small RV began making rounds in the area in 2009.

Clarke has only been in the city for seven weeks, but already the program has become an important service-provider for him.

“I found out about the [mobile outreach services] from another person, another homeless person,” says Clarke while the van made one of its usual Friday stops on Aug. 21.  “And he was telling me they give out food and clothes, and they’ve got nursing and a doctor and whatnot, and I came over. And every time I do they help me out: they give me clothes or food or snacks or someone to talk to or send me to the hospital, which happens a lot. It’s a great bunch of people, that’s for sure. They help a lot of people out.”

The program provides a variety of services to those without homes or who are precariously housed or in need. Recently, in addition to providing masks, hand sanitizer and education around the COVID-19 pandemic, the program has made further steps to address the significant increase in opioid overdose deaths.

The program has experienced a 300 per cent spike in the uptake of harm reduction supplies and education. And with Emergency Community Support Funds provided by United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island, the program now operates for a fourth day every week and has been able to stock up on supplies from food and hygiene products to PPE, medications and more.

To address the opioid crisis and drug use in general, the program not only offers safe injection supplies, safe smoking supplies and naloxone kits, it now has a new aid for people: basic smartphones and education on the Lifeguard app.

Officially launched in May of this year, the app has become an important tool for those using opioids, especially as they are being asked to socially distance from the people who would normally watch over them when they use.

“It’s doing a countdown,” explains Sabina, a registered nurse and the program’s coordinator, as she demonstrates the app to Clarke. “So if I became unconscious or somnolent or not rousable and there is no one there to give me naloxone or give me a shake if I don’t turn that (alarm) off, emergency services are going to be deployed to your location."

“This is amazing,” says Clarke. “And I’m going to do this on my phone.”

Though Clarke says he uses stimulants, he says he recognizes that it could have fentanyl in it and that the app would help his friends as well.

“I carry three naloxone kits with me because everybody does down,” he says, noting that he’s used naloxone to help bring people back from an overdose several dozen times in the span of a month-and-a-half.

Since the app was made available, Sabina says she’s seen the positive effects it can have in helping people make healthier decisions.

On one of the colder nights in mid-March, she recalls finding a woman slumped over against a wall.

“She was in a place not normally on our route but we always have our eyes out,” she says. “We pulled over, she was not easily rousable and her respirations were shallow. We responded quickly and she came to with naloxone and artificial respiration. She declined ambulance transport so we arranged transport to the local shelter and discussed safer strategies for using alone and provided regular follow up.

“On one of the times we saw her, she identified she had overdosed 6 times this year. Each time she recovered, someone random had revived her.

“Once the Lifeguard app was made available, we were able to download it to her phone, and she uses it regularly; since then she has only had one overdose and there was an immediate response which was ‘very reassuring.’ When we saw her a few weeks ago she noted the combination of having a reliable check-in, going indoors and Lifeguard has really helped her to review her choices and she has recently tried to start methadone.”

Asked what he would tell people about the importance of the program in Courtenay, Clarke says, “Look at statistics. Look at how it helps people. It goes to places that other people won’t go. They will go to a camp ...sometimes these people will even walk into the bush and find you ... it’s pretty sick.”

By supporting effective mobile health programs like this one, United Way Central & Northern Vancouver Island is supporting the most vulnerable members of our communities during this pandemic and the opioid crisis. Gifts from our generous donors keep these kinds of programs alive.

“It’s an amazing program, and I hope they continue.” - Duncan