Overdose prevention needed now, say frontline workers

"When they’re alone behind a locked door, that’s when they’re in trouble. This has been a long time coming...”

Overdose prevention measures couldn’t have come soon enough to those who are getting a firsthand view of the current drug crisis.

“Since it reared its head, we have had clients come in and ask when we will have a service,” said Clare MacDonald, executive director of Living Positive, the organization that’s taken on the task of opening two overdose prevention sites in Kelowna by Friday.

“Now our clients are just using behind locked doors jumping into a bathroom somewhere so they can use and get out. And when they’re alone behind a locked door, that’s when they’re in trouble. This has been a long time coming.”

To date, there have been nearly 40 overdose deaths in Kelowna and more than 600 provincewide.

With the new overdose prevention sites at the Living Positive Resource Centre and the recently vacated Kelowna Health Centre site, those drug users will find a greatly desired measure of safety.

“The people who we work with are using substances for many reasons and they’re dependent on them,” said MacDonald.

“They have just as much want to live as others. But we have clients who are coming in and saying they had a friend pass away on the weekend and that’s just as tragic to us as it is to them.”

For those who aren’t deeply involved in health services, the overdose prevention site may not sound a lot different than the Supervised Injection Sites that have been making headlines in Kelowna.

Last month Interior Health announced it was looking at opening one at 477 Leon Ave., but it needed to get approvals from Health Canada first.

These emergency response sites are not seeking federal permission.

They are supported by a ministerial order issued on Dec. 9 under the Emergency Health Services Act and Health Authorities Act.

The order directs that health authorities establish overdose prevention sites based on the advice of the Provincial Health Officer in locations of very high risk during the public health emergency declared under B.C.’s Public Health Act in April, 2016.

That, however, is not the only difference.

MacDonald explained supervised injection sites provide users with a medical professional who will watch as drugs are injected.

“In overdose prevention sites, clients are simply given a safe place to go inside and they can go about their business,” said MacDonald.

“Staff will not be watching (consumption) but if an overdose does occur, they will be close enough to prevent brain damage or death by administering naloxone and breathing support.”

The sites will also offer a conduit to further treatment, if so desired by the drug user.

“We are already a conduit to services, where our clients can access harm reduction supplies for injecting and inhaling substances,” MacDonald said.

“They can come in and get supplies and ask ‘can you help me get to detox.’”

Although the model is aimed at harm reduction, it’s not always welcomed.

The application for a Supervised Injection Site on Leon Avenue, for example, has already drawn criticism from the business community, with both the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Kelowna Association voicing concerns about the location.

They argue it’s at odds with creating a vibrant and healthy downtown.

The Rutland business community, which will be close to the Living Positive site, has yet to form a staunch opinion on the matter. Mike Koutsantonis, president of URBA, said that in Rutland there’s been a noticeable rise in drug use.

“It’s standard throughout the whole city that there’s been a rise,” he said.

“It’s proven by the amount of complaints and the number of needles found in different alleyways. We know there’s a rise, but what is the exact need in Rutland? That remains to be seen.” As a business organization, he said they’ll examine it further.

“We will look into it and see what it’s all about. It may be a good thing, or it may not,” he said.

Health Minister Terry Lake is convinced it’s the right choice.

“In the wake of a spike in overdose-related 911 calls, and in light of the current cold snap across the province, health authorities are moving quickly to set up overdose prevention sites in communities where a significant number of people have been suffering overdoses,” said Lake.

“We needed to act quickly with this emergency measure to help save people’s lives, which is our foremost concern as we continue our work to combat the overdose crisis.”

Several overdose prevention sites were established in B.C. last week, including three in Vancouver and one in Prince George, with more planned for Victoria and Surrey this week.