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B.C. universities don't have standard way of handling drug overdoses

Every B.C. university and college sets its own policy for naloxone availability and emergency response. Experts say policies should be better regulated to keep students safe.
Nasal naloxone boxes are posted in 19 places across Carleton University’s campus in Ottawa. DILLON BRADY, CARLETON UNIVERSITY

There is no provincial policy on how B.C. universities and colleges should handle the toxic drug crisis, so emergency medical responses and student access to overdose-reversing medication looks different on every campus.

It’s difficult, therefore, to know if there could be a repeat of what happened in the death of University of Victoria student Sidney McIntyre-Starko, who suffered fentanyl poisoning in a dorm room in January. Fellow students called 911 and campus security officers for help, but she didn’t receive naloxone for 13 minutes or CPR for 15 minutes, and by then her brain had been starved of oxygen.

“Every institution is so incredibly different in their values and the way their administration wants to go forward with this. Some institutions are much more proactive about how accessible naloxone kits are, whereas some keep them more in the hands of their nurse practitioners,” said Cole Reinbold, secretary-treasurer of the B.C. Federation of Students. “Naloxone should be as readily available as fire extinguishers on campuses. Issues like the toxic drug crisis do not stop at campus borders. Making naloxone accessible to all students and staff will save lives.”

Postmedia reported last week that UVic students on campus have been told in an emergency to phone security officers, who the university describes as “highly trained medical responders.” The two officers who responded to Sidney’s overdose were carrying naloxone and were trained in CPR, but failed to use either tool until a 911 operator instructed them to do so.

UVic students can access naloxone from a campus wellness centre that is only open during business hours. In a statement, the university said it has no plans to expand that access.

Other post-secondary schools have different procedures.

UBC has boxes containing free naloxone in an easy-to-use nasal format in several locations across campus and in every student residence, and it advises students to call 911 first during an emergency and then campus security, said spokesperson Thandi Fletcher.

Since 2019, Carleton University in Ottawa has distributed free nasal naloxone in boxes that are alarmed so that when someone takes a spray bottle, others in the area are alerted to a possible overdose. There are 19 boxes spread across campus, with plans to increase that number to 26.

“We’re working toward this idea of a substance-use-health-aware campus, rather than just responding only to the opioid crisis or other problems as they come up,” said Dillon Brady, Carleton’s manager of student conduct and harm reduction.

Premier David Eby said last week that Sidney’s “horrific” death would be examined by a coroner’s inquest, calling the timeline of the medical response “profoundly disturbing.”

Post-secondary Education Minister Lisa Beare has declined a request for an interview about Sidney’s case. On Monday, Mental Health and Addictions Minister Jennifer Whiteside said Beare would meet Tuesday with B.C.’s university and college presidents “to determine what’s currently happening on … post secondary campuses.”

Whiteside did not know the details of what would be discussed, but she said that 911 should always be the first number called during an emergency and that the government will look at what universities such as Carleton are doing.

Sidney’s parents, Caroline McIntyre and Ken Starko, want major changes to prevent another death. That includes wide accessibility on campuses to nasal naloxone, which can reverse overdoses, teaching students about the toxic drug supply during first-year orientation, and a review of the “unregulated” medical response systems at B.C.’s post-secondary schools.

On its website, UVic says its campus security officers have WorkSafeBC Level 2 first aid and “many are also trained paramedics.” But campus security director Jessica Maclean said her employees “are not trained as emergency first responders” and did not explain the contradiction.

Maclean said she is proud of the “commendable efforts” made by the officers who responded to Sidney’s overdose. She noted that UVic is “sharing our lessons learned with other universities and campuses across B.C. in hopes that Sidney’s death can help prevent harm to other students.”

UVic’s statement said first-year orientation programs will be updated to include information about naloxone, and that student staff working in residences will receive training in this area.

Postmedia spoke with a half dozen first-year UVic students who said information about where and how to access naloxone on campus is very limited.

After Sidney collapsed from fentanyl poisoning, an upper-year residence adviser and a co-worker took it upon themselves to get several naloxone kits from the pharmacy and put them on each floor of that building so students could access them. The kits they pinned to bulletin boards at the entrance to each floor were taken down by UVic employees, who said students hadn’t been trained to use them, but the kits they put in the student lounges were left, said Anne (a pseudonym as she is still a student at UVic).

At Vancouver Island University, every upper-year student overseeing first-years in residence is trained in administering naloxone and has a kit they can access during an emergency, said Reinbold, the B.C. Federation of Students official, who was a senior residence adviser while doing their undergrad at the Nanaimo school.

How other schools are handling the situation varies widely:

• Simon Fraser: Its website says to call 911 immediately during an overdose, and if on campus to call security. Free nasal naloxone training is available to students but an email to Postmedia did not answer where on campus students can pick up a kit, and that information is not obvious on its website.

• Thompson Rivers: Its website says to call campus security during an emergency, such as an overdose. Needle naloxone is available at its wellness centre.

• UBC-Okanagan: Its website says to call campus security during an overdose, but a spokesperson said students are also told to phone 911. Campus security and student volunteers trained in first aid carry nasal naloxone, and have distributed about 500 kits to students. “While the cost is higher than needle naloxone, nasal was chosen for our first responders as it is easier to administer in the field and there is no concern about intramuscular injections,” said Nathan Skolksi, UBCO’s public affairs associate director.