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Growing concern over potency of street drugs due to pandemic

The NorWest Community Health Centres safe injection site, Path 525, is seeing a reduction in use and healthcare professionals are concerned people are vulnerable to more potent drugs on city streets.
Path 525
Signs are displayed outside Path 525 at the NorWest Community Health Centre to remind clients that services are still available during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted).

THUNDER BAY - Healthcare professionals are growing increasingly concerned that fewer vulnerable members of the population are accessing harm reduction services and as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, street drugs are becoming more and more dangerous.

“There is always a concern about the drug supply in terms of people knowing what they actually are injecting,” said Juanita Lawson, CEO of NorWest Community Health Centre. “With the changes in terms of drug supply, which we have heard consistently across the province, it does become problematic when people think they are injecting a certain substance and they are not.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread throughout Ontario, the NorWest Community Health Centre and the supervised injection site, Path 525, has seen a decline in usage.

According to Lawson, there was a 50 per cent drop in clients utilizing the service in April compared March. There was a slight increase in usage in the first two weeks of May and Lawson said they are encouraging people who need to access services to visit the site.

"For us, we know with people who are potentially needing to use the service, we just want to get the word out that we are here for them and want them to engage with us,” she said.

All clients at Path 525 and the NorWest Community Health Centre are screened for COVID-19 symptoms and people who do exhibit symptoms can still access services.

There are protocols in place to protect both clients and staff and physical distancing is being practiced and facilities are disinfected regularly.

Outreach teams have also been distributing harm reduction and naloxone kits to vulnerable members of the population.

Lawson said in the last four weeks, 300 naloxone kits have been distributed, along with 700 safe injection and safe inhalation kits, and 100 personal hygiene kits. Telus also donated phones that have been distributed as well.

“We distributed them to individuals we know are very vulnerable or potentially in unsafe situations,” she said. “A number of our clients from Path 525 also received some of those phones so at least we could touch based with them, connect with their provider, and phone and ask questions.”

But there is still growing concern regarding the drug supply and the potency of drugs on the streets.

There have been a number of overdoses in the city in recent months, though statistics for 2020 are not available at this time.

According to Brad King, Path 525 supervisor of consumption and treatment services, there is a shortage of illicit drugs across Canada due to COVID-19 and stronger border restrictions.

“When such a thing happens, the people that are in charge of the drug supply, i.e. criminals, start throwing whatever concoction together and it can be increasingly dangerous,” he said.

“Drug supply at best is sketchy. It’s becoming worse due to the borders being closed and all the circumstances around COVID. We are hearing reports of batches of drugs that were particularly weak and people were adding more fentanyl to them, making them stronger.”

Drugs can be tested at Path 525, but King said the testing has its limitations and will only show if drugs contain fentanyl, but not how much.

“The idea of there being pure heroin out on the street, it is very unlikely that is what people are getting,” he said. “A lot of people using opiates, they already know there is fentanyl in it, it doesn’t tell them how much.”

Outreach initiatives will continue to keep people informed that these services are available. Those who require these services and may not be able to access them are encouraged to never use drugs alone and to have naloxone on hand.

“We want to encourage everybody who has used the site in the past or could make use of the site to come back,” King said. “We are open. We have all the necessary measures in place.”

“People’s dignity is being taken away in many ways,” Lawson added. “How do we look at that from a health equity lens. The fact that all these normal places they were able to at least wash up or go to the washroom or grab a sandwich. They just aren’t available to them. People who are vulnerably housed are very compromised.”

The safe injection site is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. and call-in clinics are also available. For more information visit the NorWest Community Health Centre website.

Doug Diaczuk

About the Author: Doug Diaczuk

Doug Diaczuk is a reporter and award-winning author from Thunder Bay. He has a master’s degree in English from Lakehead University
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