Despite a growing number of opioid overdoses in the past two weeks, Penticton shouldn’t expect a safe injection site anytime soon.
The service will be made available in Kelowna, but it comes one year after a emergency was called.
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“When you say it’s a health emergency, 12 months is a long time to come up with something, but we will take a service that will make an impact whenever we can,” Dr. Trevor Corneil, Chief Medical Health Officer with Interior Health.
Twelve months is also somewhat remarkable when you consider the history of safe injection sites in Canada.
It took five years to get Health Canada to approve Insite, which opened in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 2003 to help address an epidemic of HIV and Hepatitis C. The previous federal government spent years trying to shutter the facility, though the Supreme Court of Canada eventually ruled that closing the facility would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by preventing drug users access to health services.
Canada’s second injection site, the Dr. Peter Centre, was given the green light in January, marking seven years since approval was first sought, said Corneil.
The Dr. Peter Centre isn’t entirely the same as Insite, as it integrates the safe injection services into its existing clinic and offers a broad range of health and social services for patients living with HIV who also deal with mental health issues, homelessness and addictions.
And the proposed sites in Kelowna and Kamloops will be different again.
For one, they’re on a much smaller scope, which could make it more adaptive to the community’s needs — something the health authority is trying to confirm now, speaking to the street population to learn whether they’ll even use the service.
Corneil said Penticton is currently not in the running for a safe injection site.
“What is important about a public health emergency is that we can change our plans as things evolve. I think we need to learn a little bit more about the process that we have gone through to get to this stage in Kamloops and Kelowna and how the application to Health Canada comes together and how long the response time is before we go down the route of looking at another city,” said Corneil.
However, he added if Vernon and Penticton are places where safe injection services are of interest or possibility they would consider it. That process would begin with asking users if those services are of interest. Then it means engaging with stakeholders such as RCMP and community harm reduction agencies to find out their perspective for what would work operationally. Once that plan is created it goes back out to users and the broader public to see where a site might work. Once approved then that would have to go back to Health Canada for exception under the Controlled Drugs and Substances act.
In Penticton there had been very low numbers of overdoses, that is until recently. Last week there was at least 25 overdoses in a matter of 12 days. In perspective, from July to October there have been one to four non-fatal overdose events at the emergency ward.
“What makes this so interesting is that the overdose deaths have also been low in Penticton. We have only seen two so far this year and in an average year we see one to five in Penticton and the South Okanagan region. This is certainly a spike over and above normal and we are actively on the ground intervening with persons who use drugs to try and prevent other overdose events,” said Corneil.
Most of the overdose events in Penticton have been younger people. Two-thirds are between the ages of 20 and 39. Corneil said most of them have been female and most have been regularly using heroin.
An alert has gone out to the medical health officer. In Penticton posters with warnings go up, verbal communication with partner agencies, the RCMP, emergency departments and outreach workers actively speaking directly with drug-users.
The life-saving Naloxone kits are also made available. Interior Health has distributed just over 1,400 in the region — just 250 of in Penticton.
-With files from Kathy Michaels/Black Press