Over 500 people have died of an overdose in Surrey since 2016. (Photo: Paul Henderson)

Opioid crisis

Surrey-led StatsCan project sheds light on overdose victims

Findings from ‘unprecedented’ case-study to be used to fight national opioid crisis

A Surrey-based statistical project is hoping to curb the devastating death toll of the opioid crisis, which has claimed over 500 lives in the city over the past three years.

On June 4 and 5, more than 60 experts from various organizations met at a closed summit hosted by the city to present findings related to fatal and non-fatal opioid overdoses in Surrey. According to Wednesday’s official report, the summit was called in response to the latest release of data from Statistics Canada, which is the first of its kind to combine data from the employment, health and justice systems.

The release, which focused on data from Surrey residents who overdosed from 2014–2016, was presented as a key component to a list of recommendations that were developed in a roundtable session on the second day of the summit.

SEE ALSO: 33 people died of overdose in Surrey in first three months of 2019

READ MORE: Surrey Fire Chief says ‘reverse engineering’ fatal OD victims will help tackle crisis

Among the recommendations was a greater call for integration between the systems that people with substance use issues come in contact with.

For example, the roundtable called for more programs like Abbotsford’s police-led Project Angel, where its clients are connected with peer support workers who have previously struggled with substance use themselves.

Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis, one of the founders of the Opioid Overdose Intervention Project, said two things stuck out to him from the Statistics Canada release: Nearly half of the people who overdosed had no contact with the justice system, and 87 per cent of the same group were on at least one prescription in the year prior to them overdosing.

“So it means that, you know, certainly not looking backwards and trying to blame anybody, but going forward it can be very instructive,” he said. “In terms of the general public, we need to be careful about the potential for becoming addicted to pain medication and pain management.”

Opioid deaths have been on the rise across the country, but B.C. has been hit the hardest. According to the BC Coroners Service, 1,510 people in the province died of an overdose in 2018, a number that has been steadily rising over the past seven years. Since 2016—the year the provincial health officer declared a public health emergency—roughly one-third of Canada’s opioid-related deaths have occurred in B.C., despite making up only 13 per cent of Canada’s total population.

SEE ALSO: Majority who die of overdose in Surrey are male, had no recent police contact: Stats Can

Based on data from the coroners service, overdose deaths in Surrey increased by 18 per cent from 2017 to 2018—the vast majority of overdose deaths involve fentanyl.

Compared to Vancouver, which has the highest rate of overdoses in the province, Surrey is more representative of B.C. as a whole, said Statistics Canada Acting Assistant Director Anthony Matarazzo, who presented the findings alongside Director General Lynn Barr-Telford at the summit. He said the unprecedented, multi-sector model of the project helped to unmask the truth about the types of people who are struggling in the crisis.

“One of the first key takeaways is that this opioid crisis, when we look at people’s pathways to the crisis—really early on in the analytical work, we recognized that this impacts all walks of life. So if anything, it kind of myth-busted what the face of the crisis looked like,” Matarazzo said.

While the primary function was to provide Surrey with data that can be actioned to deal with their immediate crisis, he said, the latent function was to establish a data model and an approach that can be scaled for use outside the city.

Garis said that he thinks the findings will quickly turn into best practices across the country.

“We’ve been asked to go to Ontario at the end of the month to make presentations to the [Ontario Provincial Police] and the provincial coroner, who are looking for similar work to be done in their areas, just to understand and try to start to build more specific actions,” he said. “So I’m feeling positive, that we have an opportunity to make a difference with this and to start to turn things around.”

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