VANCOUVER -- The Drug Overdose Response Team, a joint initiative of Vancouver Coastal Health and Vancouver Fire Rescue Services, has been operating as a pilot project for 20 months and has connected more than 150 overdose patients to support services. Now, the city is making the project permanent.

"This health crisis doesn't know any borders,” says VFRS Capt. Jonathan Gormick, the newly named lead for the response team. “We connect with patients in every corner of the city. East Van, the downtown eastside, Shaughnessy, UBC. Everybody is affected by this."

Gormick joined Vancouver Coastal Health chief medical health officer Patricia Daly and City of Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart for a Zoom news conference about the program on Wednesday.

Through the program, firefighters and outreach workers follow up with people several days after they’ve overdosed to offer access to treatment and support services.

The city has allocated $180,000 in its 2021 budget for the now-permanent project. Health officials say the program couldn’t come soon enough.

“The drugs being circulated now in our communities are more toxic than they were before the pandemic,” says Daly. “Some of the public health measures put in place have meant people are not accessing harm reduction services and treatment services as much as they were before the pandemic – they’re consuming their substances alone – and they’re more likely to overdose and die.”

The rate of overdose deaths in 2021 so far is higher than it’s ever been, Daly adds.

Vancouver’s mayor says the decriminalization of illicit drugs is the next step the city is pushing to combat the overdose crisis. Stewart says he will take a proposal to the federal government next month.

“We’re well on our way to submitting our package for an exemption from the controlled substances act by May of this year,” he says. “Decimalization in our city will be a unique Vancouver model that fully embraces a health-care approach that connects people with care and treatment not stigma and criminalization.” 


A previous version of this story gave an incorrect amount of funding the program had received. It's $180,000, not $180 million.