Activists say death following presumed overdose at health centre highlights need for more supervised sites

A young woman collapsed in a bathroom at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre earlier this week and died in hospital from what’s presumed to be a drug overdose.

The death happened Monday as the health centre continued its years-long wait to open a supervised injection site.

“We know that had this overdose happened in a supervised environment, they would have survived,” said Rob Boyd, director of the health centre’s harm reduction program.

The woman, who has not been identified, collapsed around 3 p.m. Monday in the centre’s public bathroom. As soon as she was discovered, she was given the overdose antidote, Naloxone, and administered oxygen by medical staff.

The woman did not respond to the medication which can quickly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, and died later that day at The Ottawa Hospital. 

The centre has never before experienced such a tragedy, Boyd said. Still, he was reluctant to draw a straight line between the death and the red tape that continues to frustrate plans to open a supervised injection site at the community health centre. 

“We don’t have any way of knowing for sure, but we suspect it was an opioid overdose,” he said. “The second thing is we don’t know, even if we had an injection room open, that she would have used it.”

Drug users now have access to two supervised injection sites: one run by the Shepherds of Good Hope on Murray Street and another operated by Ottawa Public Health on Clarence Street.  

The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre has been working towards opening a supervised injection site for years. The centre launched a public debate on the issue in April 2016 and, after overcoming opposition from the mayor and police chief, received federal government approval in July 2017. Two months later, it received $1 million in provincial funding, but the centre is still waiting for $200,000 in capital to finance renovations required to house the supervised site. 

“I don’t even talk about when we’re going to open any more,” Boyd lamented. “We were hoping to be open last spring, then last summer and last fall. We keep passing these deadlines and it’s very frustrating …We have been working with provincial officials to move this along as quickly as possible. We’re very close.”

If the centre’s supervised site had been open, and if the woman had used it, staff would know much more about what drugs she was taking, Boyd said, and would have been in a better position to respond to a crisis. 

The health centre, he added, has dealt with a handful of overdoses during the past few months, including one case that sent a drug user to hospital.

Activists pointed to the woman’s death as more evidence that political intervention is needed to address the opioid crisis. The Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs urged Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins to work with his federal counterparts to open more overdose prevention sites in the province. “Because this is going to keep happening,” the group warned on Twitter.

“I don’t know if that would have been preventative in this case,” Boyd said, “but I know there’s a lot of people who would be helped by us having that service in place.”

By Andrew Duffy
Source: Ottawa Citizen