08/26/2016 05:01 EDT | Updated 08/27/2017 01:12 EDT

Vancouver's supervised-injection site sees unusually high number of overdoses

VANCOUVER — Drug overdoses have spiked this week at Vancouver's supervised-injection site as workers report noticing an unknown substance has appeared on the streets.

There were 26 overdoses in an around Insite over the two days between Tuesday and Thursday mornings, almost half of which took place during a 24-hour period beginning Wednesday morning.

"The staff that have been responding to the overdoses in the injection room are noticing that there's a substance that is quite different in characteristics that they haven't seen before," said Neil Arao, a manager at Insite.

"They're saying it's more beige in colour and more of a fine powder."

Arao said workers believe the substance is heavily laced fentanyl, based on the surge in overdoses.

The first 24-hour shift that started Wednesday morning is part of a pilot project Vancouver Coastal Health Authority launched in response to the region's opioid crisis and it is intended to continue for up to six months.

The program will see the facility remain open around the clock from Wednesday to Friday once a month when income assistance payments go out, which it said is associated with increased drug activity.

So-called welfare Wednesday came a day early this week, with cheques going out on Tuesday.

The usual number of overdoses on the day social assistance is distributed is six to seven, he said, far less than this week's 14 on Tuesday and 12 on Wednesday.

He said Insite staff have mixed feelings about the incidents.

"On the one hand, I think we're really thankful to be able to participate and contribute to the services at Insite and providing that safe-injection site," Arao said.

"On the other hand, it is alarming that these numbers are spiking."

Carrie Stefanson of Vancouver Coastal Health said no one died and the reason for the spike in overdoses is still unconfirmed.

The typical number of visits to Insite in standard 18-hour day is 700. There were 692 visits in the 24-hour period from Wednesday to Thursday.

British Columbia's chief medical officer declared a state of emergency earlier this year following an increase in drug overdose deaths, many of which were linked to the dangerous opioid fentanyl.

The most recent statistics released by the coroner's service showed that deaths across the province dropped slightly in July compared with previous months.

There were 433 deaths recorded between Jan. 1 and July 31, a nearly 75-per-cent increase compared with the same period in 2015.

The total number of overdose deaths in July was 52, down from 61 in June. The updated statistics show the number of deaths between Jan. 1 and June 30 where fentanyl was detected has leapt to 238, a 250-per-cent increase over the same period last year.

Overdoses that were connected in some way to fentanyl made up 30 per cent of the overall total of illicit drug deaths in all of 2015, while that percentage for the first half of this year has grown to more than 60 per cent.