VANCOUVER - Frontline workers at Vancouver's Overdose Prevention Society are warning that a dangerous drug combination is causing a spike in overdoses and leaving people in a coma-like state before they can be revived.

Trey Helten, a manager at the OPS on East Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside, said Friday started with two overdoses around 8 a.m. – and by noon, there had been 16 more. Four of those overdose victims ended up going to hospital for further treatment, Helten said.

"That's how our day started – it was like a warzone – and it didn't let up until three o'clock in the afternoon," Helten said.

While Friday was a particularly bad day for the sheer number of overdoses, Helten said one particular strain of "bad dope" has been causing problems for around six months.

Helten said it's a low-grade Benzodiazepine, a type of drug that slows down the body's central nervous system, mixed with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that has caused thousands of deaths across North America in an ongoing overdose epidemic.

It causes an absolute blackout that can be difficult to rouse people out of, Helten said. When frontline workers give victims the overdose-reversal drug naloxone and oxygen, they often remain in what appears to be a coma.

In B.C. in 2018, 1,541 people died of illicit drug toxicity, according to the BC Coroners Service, a rate of 30.9 deaths per 100,000 people in the province. As of the end of August, there had been 690 such deaths in 2019, a rate of 20.5 per 100,000.

The solution, Helten said, is a safe supply of clean drugs available for people who have been unable to stop using illicit drugs.

Several clean supply programs now operate in the Downtown Eastside, including a program operated by Portland Hotel Society and one operated by Vancouver Coastal Health at the Downtown Eastside Connections Clinic.

While the idea of giving out drugs to people who are addicted to illicit drugs is controversial, Helten said it provides people space to work on other aspects of their lives without the constant need to procure street drugs, and risk dying every time they take them.

"Once people get stabilized on (clean drugs), they don't have to use fentanyl, and then we can work on the next steps," he said. "Do you need housing, do you need treatment, do you need a counsellor, what do you want to do next?" 

With files from CTV News Vancouver's Ben Miljure and Nafeesa Karim