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Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart speak to the media during a visit to the Molson Overdose Prevention Site in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, on Jan. 16, 2020.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

British Columbia is under pressure to ensure that opioid addicts have a safe supply of the drug to prevent the province’s hospitals from being overwhelmed with victims of two simultaneous health crises: overdoses and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this month, the federal government said it would allow B.C. to provide safe drugs.

But Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart said he’s alarmed the provincial government still hasn’t come up with a plan for how to distribute the opioids. The city’s supply of illegal drugs is dwindling as borders slam shut, and drug users are becoming more frantic.

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Health-care advocates for the addicted are warning that potentially infected sick people will go out into the streets looking for drugs and may land in hospitals at a time when health facilities already risk being overwhelmed.

“I am picking up a lot of anxiety,” said Mr. Stewart, who has said repeatedly that Vancouver’s overdose crisis, which has killed thousands, is one of his main priorities. “This is something they could do quite quickly to get off their plate. This is needed like right away.”

B.C. Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy said in an e-mailed statement to The Globe and Mail that the NDP government is working on the problem urgently.

She said the goal is to "get solutions in place to help keep people with substance-use challenges and front-line workers safe.” She did not have a timeline on when that might happen.

Mr. Stewart said he is worried that overdoses will be shunted to second place as the primary-care health system gets overloaded with COVID-19 cases.

Janice Abbott, chief executive officer of Atira Women’s Resource Society and Atira Property Management, said the desperate search for opioids will defeat efforts to ensure a vulnerable population takes the isolation measures recommended to protect against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. It also means those people could be carriers in the community, infecting others.

“It doesn’t matter where you live, if you can’t get what you need, you’re going to withdraw. That can be extremely painful, it can be deadly. So if people can’t access a supply, you’re going to get people who are sick in emergency,” said Ms. Abbott, whose agencies run about 40 buildings with 4,000 people, mostly women, living in them.

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“No supply means people will not self-isolate respective of whether they’re sick or not. It feels like it could be chaos if something realistic isn’t done.”

Dealing with those cases could also hamper the system’s ability to cope with coronavirus cases that come in.

Sarah Blyth, who has been running an overdose prevention operation that she founded in a Downtown Eastside alley, said the issue is getting critical because of how desperate people are. She said clients are telling her of dealers saying that their drug supplies, which typically come through the U.S. border, are getting low.

“And all the things that people do to get the money for drugs, like sex work or dealing, are worse and then the supply is going to get worse.”

As supplies get lower, dealers are also more likely to cut them with other substances, anything from baking soda to rat poison, which could also cause more emergency health problems.

Added to that, people who overdose have been saved in the past through a combination of naloxone and the provision of immediate oxygen, either through a mask or rescue breathing. Those last two are no longer being done because of the danger of coronavirus infection, which means there’s more likelihood of brain damage in those who survive.

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Ms. Abbott said she is also concerned that, whenever the province does provide a safe-supply protocol, it could be too rigid, with limits set at one level, instead of being geared to the individual.

As well, if getting a safe supply requires a visit with a doctor or nurse practitioner, that could turn into a bureaucratic nightmare, she said. “We need a courageous response, not an overly bureaucratic one.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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