Supervised injection sites will save lives, say frontline workers

As of the end of May, 36 Kelowna residents had died of an illicit drug overdose

Lives will be saved by newly approved mobile supervised injection units, say front-line workers in the ongoing drug overdose crisis.

Health Canada approved Interior Health’s application to provide mobile supervised consumption services in Kelowna on Wednesday and it is expected to be available in two weeks.

Sheila Kerr, a harm reduction and education worker with Living Positive Resource Centre has said it will be an important part of the effort to help people survive the fentanyl crisis. There has been a significant push from the provincial government and health authorities since a state of emergency was called in 2016, but it has yet to slow the tide of fatalities.

As of the end of May, 36 Kelowna residents had died of an illicit drug overdose, according to BC Coroner Service stats. In 2016 the total number of deaths was 48 and in 2015 the total was 19. While the numbers don’t look positive, Kerr has had a bird’s eye view of the efficacy of efforts underway.

“I know this will save lives—the ( mobile OD prevention units) have already been saving lives,” said Kerr.

Mobile OD prevention units have been in Kelowna since June, and Kerr said they’ve gained acceptance among the drug using community. Now there are more services available.

“It was a slow uptake at first … people didn’t think they could trust it right away and relationships needed to be developed,” she said. “Now that people are more comfortable with the staff and services and they know it is a safe place, more people have been utilizing it.”

The changes to services provided may seem insignificant from a non user’s perspective.

“We are well positioned to offer supervised consumption services in our mobile units. Up until now, staff have been providing harm reduction services in the units but have not been permitted to supervise drug use,” said Dr. Trevor Corneil, Chief Medical Health Officer with Interior Health.

“Supervising a person who is using drugs is more than just observation. It is an opportunity for intervention, education and building a therapeutic relationship.”

In addition to supervising consumption, staff in the mobile units also administer naloxone in the event of an overdose, provide harm reduction services and supplies, and offer primary care (wound, foot and burn care services), as well as counselling and referral services.

The mobile units will continue to operate in both Kelowna and Kamloops at the same locations as previously announced. Interior Health anticipates the service will evolve over time based on community need, stakeholder input and evaluation outcomes.

Community reaction to the approval has already been mixed in the one day since it was announced.

On the Capital News Facebook page a person identifying themselves as Eva Stacey wrote, “the government is so screwed up to think this is a solution. Wow. We can go to all this (expense) but when it comes down to helping people that want help to quit smoking we will only cover a few things that may work, or someone wanting help to quit drinking they fall short. Does this really surprise you?”

There were a number more of comments of this kind, while a minority of commenters saw the benefits.

A reader identifying themselves as Liz Mark wrote, “awesome! We could use one in Vernon also.”

Reaction to drug using intervention services has always been varied, said Kerr.

“I think, in general, there will always be individuals who lack an understanding of addiction and underlying factors, or individuals who feel their morals are being challenged,” she said. “I personally cannot understand how one could be morally opposed to saving lives, which is exactly what this service is doing.”

Overall, however, she said an increasing number of people are OK with the idea.

Interior Health submitted its applications to Health Canada for mobile supervised consumption units in March 2017. They are among the first in Canada.