Vancouver funds permanent position to lead overdose response team

VANCOUVER — The City of Vancouver is providing funding for a permanent position to lead a program aimed at supporting people who have survived overdoses.

Mayor Kennedy Stewart says a "very important" pilot program that paired firefighters with staff from Vancouver Coastal Health will stay in place to help people break the cycle of overdoses by connecting them with support services.

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Vancouver Fire Capt. Jonathan Gormick has been appointed to oversee the combined overdose response team after working with the pilot program.

Gormick says they've been able to reach people who are at highest risk of fatal overdose and those facing the greatest barriers to accessing care.

Over 20 months, he says they've connected more than 150 patients to a range of supports — from health care to housing and income supports — which ultimately reduces the likelihood of another overdose.

Gormick says the new position dedicated to leading the program means the team is working to increase its visits and improve how it locates patients.

"The program is patient-driven. Options are provided without an agenda. And we figuratively and literally meet patients where they're at," he said during a news conference on Wednesday.

Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, said the joint initiative is an important pathway to treatment and care, which could help the city as it seeks to decriminalize simple possession.

"This is one of the programs that will help us convince the federal government this is the right thing to do, we have the systems in place here to help people and link them to appropriate care," she said.

The city expects to submit its final application to Health Canada for an exemption to federal drug laws by next month, Stewart said.

If approved, the exemption would put in motion the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of illicit drugs for personal use in the city.

"Decriminalization in our city will be a unique Vancouver model that fully embraces a health-care-focused approach and connects people with care and treatment, not stigma and criminalization," Stewart said.

Drug toxicity and overdose deaths increased with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and more people in the Vancouver Coastal health region have died from overdose since last January than from COVID-19, Daly noted.

"Those who died of illicit drug overdoses were younger on average than those who died of COVID-19, and yet we're not seeing the same public concern about these preventable deaths," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2021.

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