Jack Alves, a 57-year-old construction worker adored by his grandchildren and whose last Facebook post was on the power of hugs, has been identified as one of five people to die from fatal drug overdoses on Friday.
Alves was one of three men and two women – all in their 40s and 50s – who died in a span of just nine hours.
The staggering death toll made the day one of the worst in an epidemic that has claimed more than 2,200 lives across British Columbia over the past two years – and more than 100 in Abbotsford since the start of 2015. The day left service providers, emergency responders and families reeling.
“This is just horrid,” said Const. Ian MacDonald, with the Abbotsford Police Department. “We lost five citizens, and family and friends lost five loved ones.”
An avid fisherman who loved the outdoors, Alves – the only victim publicly identified so far – is described by his daughter April as an “extremely gentle and caring” man who was beloved by his five grandchildren.
“He always wanted to help everybody,” April said. “He honestly did not even realize how much people loved him.”
But the death of a middle-aged construction worker isn’t an outlier in the current opioid epidemic.
Such blue-collar labourers have been among the hardest-hit groups in the current crisis, according to Fraser Health.
Alves had previously struggled with depression and had used drugs before getting clean about seven years ago. His daughter said that while Alves had discussed his drug use, she never saw him high.
The last two years have seen health authorities try to stem a wave of deaths caused by drug overdoses, many of which are blamed on deadly opioid additives like fentanyl and carfentanil. The death rate among street-level users has been reduced through better access to naloxone and the opening of sites where people can use drugs while supervised or with another person close by, according to Chris Buchner, Fraser Health’s clinical director of population and public health.
But it has been harder to stop the deaths of people who use alone inside . Over the last two years, 84 per cent of all overdose deaths have taken place in private residences. And all of those who died Friday used their drugs alone.
“We don’t know who’s using drugs at home, or where those homes are,” Buchner said.
Three were found in homes, one was at the Salvation Army, and another was found outside, against a building.
Kindra Breau, program director at Positive Living Fraser Valley, says the shame and stigma of drug use makes it harder to get naloxone and potentially life-saving information in the hands of those at risk. The epidemic has claimed the lives of young parents, university administrators, students and people from other walks of life.
Breau said it’s important that users and family members have conversations about the dangers of drug use and how the risk can be reduced, if not eliminated. Such conversations can acknowledge that a loved one disapproves, while affirming that non-users should be aware of drug activity, when it takes place, and have access to naloxone.
“Someone who is using drugs, if they’re using alone, they can’t save themselves,” she said.
Breau added it’s also vital that both users and family members realize that the risk of death isn’t limited to street users, and that fentanyl can be found in a range of drugs. Cocaine has been detected in a higher proportion of illicit drug overdoses than heroin, according to the BC Coroners Service. Police say that in the latest slate of deaths, two had purchased what they thought was fentanyl-laced crack cocaine, while three had consumed heroin they knew contained some fentanyl.
While drug users do increasingly know fentanyl is likely in their drugs and sometimes actually seek it out, the concentrations of fentanyl or other additives are unpredictable and can vary from dose to dose.
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A major barrier remains the stigma of drug use and addiction.
Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun stressed the need to prevent people from using in the first place, adding that he is unsettled by the use of the term “recreational drug use.”
And he said dealers are “in some cases committing murder” and called for a crackdown. Braun also noted that many of those currently dying got their first dose of opioids from doctors, only to later find themselves addicted.
“If you’ve had a serious operation in a hospital, you’ve probably had fentanyl,” he said. “I cringe when I hear people say, ‘Just pull up your bootstraps, you’re making a choice.’ “
He also expressed concern for the well-being of first responders who have had to deal with more than three dozens of overdose-related deaths in Abbotsford so far this year.
Asked whether Abbotsford needs a safe injection site, Braun said he wasn’t sure.
“They are saving people and there’s a place for it,” he said. But he wasn’t sure such sites would appeal to people who use inside and may be ashamed of their drug activity. “I don’t see them coming out of their houses to go to a safe injection site.”
Braun said the region needs more detox beds, but Fraser Health’s Buchner said detox isn’t recommended for those who are addicted. Instead, the authority has been increasing opioid agonist therapy (OAT) clinics. Methadone is the most commonly known opioid agonist, which is used to prevent withdrawal and reduce cravings.
Buchner said detoxing can actually be particularly dangerous. Because of the high risk of relapse and the current strength of drugs being sold, death rates are high for people who try to quit, only to relapse.
Police, meanwhile, have been targeting dealers, with prosecutors asking judges for longer and harsher punishments for selling fentanyl. In January, one B.C. judge cited the need to deter selling fentanyl when she handed a 14-year jail term to a dealer.
Buchner, though, said a rethink of drug prohibitions is needed.
“This is a situation that exists because drugs are illicit and thus not regulated and are contaminated and killing people,” he said. “If we were increasingly able to bring people into care to use medication to replace the illicit toxic drugs, I think we’d be able to do more and more with that approach.”
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Abbotsford Community Services began operating a new OAT clinic last month. PLFV, meanwhile, has increased the hours of its South Fraser Way overdose prevention site while partnering with local pharmacies to increase awareness of support and harm-reduction materials in the hope of reaching people who use drugs in their homes.
Breau said the provincial government has also done well to push for better access to less-deadly prescription opioids, but she said federal regulators have not been as receptive.
In a statement emailed to The News, Judy Darcy, the province’s new mental health and addictions minister, offered condolences to the families of those who died in Abbotsford and thanked the first responders for their work dealing with the health emergency.
“We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to them,” she said.
Darcy said the province is “taking urgent action,” and referenced $322 million in new spending over the next three years to expand access to treatment and medications.
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As health officials and governments continue to search for solutions, the Alveses and four other families are left sorting through the damage done by the opioid epidemic.
April said it’s important for the public to know that those dying are ordinary residents who go to work, laugh with their families and take camping trips on weekends.
“People who are doing it are not out there doing it all day long,” Alves said.
Her father had been clean for years, but relapsed earlier this year after some personal setbacks. But while she had known about the overdose epidemic, Alves said she didn’t fully realized that it could affect her. Now she does, and feels that it’s important people know her father was a good person, whatever the circumstances of his death.
“I just want people to know that it’s … normal people,” she said. “He was completely normal.”
-with files from Kelvin Gawley