THUNDER BAY - As a street outreach nurse with the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, Heather Cooke said she sees just how dangerous opioid use has become in the city.
In order to help educate high-risk individuals about a potential life-saving service that is now available in the city, Cooke said she wanted to learn more about how it works and what people can expect when they walk through the doors.
“We’ve been telling a lot of our clients about the overdose prevention site and we wanted to see and be able to tell them how it runs, what it looks like, so when we are telling them about it, we can tell them it is really easy,” Cooke said. “And it’s good for us to know as well.”
Cooke was one of dozens of people who came to an open house at the overdose prevention site on Tuesday at the NorWest Community Health Centre on Simpson Street.
Jennifer Lawrance, director of health services with the NorWest Community Health Centre, said the open house was meant to increase awareness in the community about the services being offered.
“It’s for people to gain an understanding of what someone might experience when they come in here and about the safety that it creates for the community,” she said.
The overdose prevention site opened in late November and provides people with a safe space to use illicit drugs under the supervision of health care professionals. It also links people with other harm reduction and addiction services.
Lawrance said exact usage numbers will not be made available until later this spring but added the site is being utilized on a daily basis.
“We have seen an increasing number of people,” she said. “It has taken a bit of time to establish trust in the community and that is completely understandable. This is pretty foreign for people. There have been some fears about apprehension by police when they arrive on site.”
More people are visiting the site, Lawrance added, to learn more about it or to find more information about harm reduction services. After learning that information, they return and often bring a friend.
“Everybody is different,” Lawrance said. “Some people are very aware about the risk of overdose and some are not. That is one of the real benefits to users to these sites. The ability to respond to an overdose or potential overdose right away and to have that support and reduce the risk of death or other negative outcomes.”
“But there are also all the other harm reduction supplies, the opportunity to talk with supportive staff in a safe environment, and we are hearing about people talking about the potential of connecting with treatment, so that’s really good.”
Cooke, who visits various locations in the city as a street outreach nurse to provide harm reduction supplies to at-risk individuals, said the overdose prevention site is definitely needed in the city of Thunder Bay.
“Especially in this area where there are a lot of high risk individuals who may be using out in the cold or in someone’s home, they have a safe place where if something was to happen with an overdose, they have the right access to care,” she said.
According to Cooke, a lot of people are not even aware that an overdose prevention site is open, which is why educating the community and at-risk people is so important.
“They don’t realize they can come here and use safely and that there’s not going to be police outside or that they are going to get in trouble for using,” she said.
The overdose prevention site is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. from Monday to Friday, but given the increased usage of the site, Lawrance said they are looking at shifting to later hours.
The site will remain open until Jan. 31, but Lawrance said they are hoping to receive an extension. An application has been submitted to the Ministry of Health for long-term funding under the provincial consumption and treatment services model.
The provincial government said it would approve 21 consumption and treatment services across the province.