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Are COVID-19 distancing measures contributing to a spike in overdose deaths in the DTES?
VANCOUVER -- A spike in suspected overdose deaths — the highest in a year — has public health officials warning against going too far in trying to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Around 30 people are suspected to have died of overdoses in March in Vancouver, according to figures presented to Vancouver city council, and just under 20 died in the first half of April, putting that month on track for another high.
That dwarfs even the number of COVID-19 cases in the Downtown Eastside, with no deaths reported in the area, Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief medical officer of Vancouver Coastal Health, told CTV News in an interview.
“We haven’t had many cases, but people continue to die of overdoses. My concern is that people have gone too far in interpreting the public health advice,” Daly said.
Visits to supervised injection sites have dropped to a third of what they were before the pandemic, according to VCH figures.
Several SROs, including those operated by the Portland Hotel Society and by Atira Property Management, have posted signs warning against visitors.
“Effective immediately, there is no guests at the Gastown Hotel due to health concerns,” one reads.
That’s effectively evicted unofficial roommates, making them homeless, and giving one explanation for the surge in tents that can be seen along Hastings Street, said Karen Ward, a contracted drug policy advisor for the City of Vancouver.
“It’s horrible. People are suddenly thrown out,” she said. “We’ve seen a huge spike in overdoses because people have nowhere to go. We say don’t use alone if you don’t have to — well now you have to,” she said.
Janice Abbott. the CEO of Atira Property Management, said the move to restrict guests began in mid-March because of concerns about people’s health. Many tenants in SROs, including the Colonial Hotel and the Gastown Hotel, have COPD and other conditions that could make them more vulnerable to COVID-19, she said.
“There is a ton of activity in those buildings. They are active buildings. Guests include friends of tenants but also debt collectors and drug dealers. That in combination with the fact that so many of our tenants have chronic underlying conditions, we felt that allowing an infection into the building, most of our tenants would have a severe reaction,” she said.
Abbott said she had heard from the tenants that they appreciated the restrictions, and that overdoses reported to her in the building had gone down. She said the guest rule in her building did not prohibit “permanent guests” of tenants. She said she would prefer to keep the restrictions.
Daly said she would like to see those signs come down, and for SRO residents to know they can go outside and use public health facilities.
“We need to balance our message here and make sure people understand the overdose death is their bigger risk in the Downtown Eastside,” she said.
Public health officials have been vague when it comes to reporting the exact number of cases in the Downtown Eastside.
Two cases were reported at the Harbour Light Shelter operated by the Salvation Army three weeks ago.
But since then the numbers have not grown as officials tested people in the area at higher rates, and tracked down their close contacts and isolated them.
Right now, only 1.6 per cent of those tested test positive, she said.
And as for exact numbers, doing the math on the published test and positive rates in the area shows there are in the range of 850 tests that have been done, and in the range of 13 confirmed cases.
Daly wouldn’t confirm the figures, but did say, “Let’s say that if you counted on your fingers and toes we would have enough to count the confirmed cases to date.”