THUNDER BAY - Health care professionals are hopeful opening the doors to a temporary overdose prevention site will help reduce the risks associated with what is becoming an opioid epidemic in the city of Thunder Bay and surrounding region.
The NorWest Community Health Centre in partnership with Dilico Anishinabek Family Services opened a small scale overdose prevention site on Tuesday that offers clients a safe place to consume illicit drugs under the supervision of a registered nurse and harm reduction worker.
“Part of the premise is to keep people safe,” said Juanita Lawson, CEO of the NorWest Community Health Centre. “We know there are a lot of bad drugs out there and people are using alone or places where they are not supervised. Unfortunately, we are experiencing a lot of deaths in our region and our community, so it is a place for people to come and be under supervision.”
In preparation of the site opening, Lawson said the Health Centre hired additional staff including registered nurses and harm reduction workers with experience working in other safe injection sites and they are trained to respond to the negative effects of drugs, as well as linking people to mental health and addiction services, housing, education, and other supports.
In December 2017, exemptions were granted by Health Canada to allow overdose prevention sites to run for six months in areas showing evidence of a public health need.
The Health Centre was granted approval from the province to open a temporary site over the summer however, in August the new provincial government put a hold on all temporary overdose prevention sites.
It was only in October that the Ministry of Health announced a new model for what it called consumption and treatment services and would allow temporary sites to open while applications to operate under the new model are submitted. The government said it would approve no more than 21 sites across the province.
“We will have this up and running until Dec. 31,” Lawson said. “We think it is very valuable to offer the service now because there are people in need. We will be working with Dilico Anishinabek Family Care, and with our community partners and the Ministry to make sure we can look at an extension past Dec. 31.”
The NorWest Health Centre is already operating the Rapid Access Addiction Medicine Clinic, which provides access to treatment services for people living with a substance use disorder.
“They can get access to medication they require to not continue using illicit substances immediately,” said John Dixon, director of service at Dilico Anishinabek Family Care. “Residential treatment has a little bit of a wait time sometimes, so it’s not for everybody.”
The clinic provides an environment for people with substance abuse issues to seek help without feeling stigmatized or discriminated against and Lawson believes the overdose prevention site will be similar.
“Thunder Bay is really experiencing an epidemic and a crisis with regard to opioid use and deaths and EMS calls and people going into the emergency department,” she said. “There is definitely a need in our community.”
Growing opioid crisis
According to Cynthia Olsen, the Thunder Bay Drug Strategy coordinator, complete overdose data is not yet available for 2018, but in the first quarter alone there were 12 deaths in the Thunder Bay District, which is above normal average compared to 2017.
“It appears across Canada that overdoses continue to increase,” Olsen said. “So it really is imperative to start to imbed these services in the community and provide timely access to overdose prevention supports.”
Olsen added she recognizes these types of services can experience push back in neighbourhoods due to fears of increased drug use or crime, but the research shows the opposite.
“All research indicates there is less public injecting and use of substances, less discarded needles at the community level, which is also an area the community is concerned with, and provides a point of access for individuals who don’t typically engage in other services,” she said.
Olsen said it will take time for people to become aware of the site and take advantage of it, but she expects as staff build relationships with clients, the word will start to spread.
“As you build those relationships with individuals who use the service, they will spread that information to their friends and increase individuals accessing,” she said. “But it will be important, if people are coming, to ensure we have a continuation plan so we just don’t have a service for a little bit and then nothing left in the community after that.”
NorWest Community Health Centre and Dilico Anishniabek Family Care are working on submitting a consumption and treatment services application to the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care to make the site permanent, and Lawson said they will continue to work with the Ministry to ensure the site remains open after the Dec. 31 while the application is completed.
The Overdose Prevention Site will be open from Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the basement of the NorWest Community Health Centre located at 525 Simpson Street.