Ottawa's first legal supervised injection site to open amid growing crisis

After years of debate and planning, Ottawa’s first legal supervised injection site prepared to open its doors on in the ByWard Market on Tuesday amid a growing opioid crisis.

Even before the interim site run by Ottawa Public Health saw its first client, though, concerns were being raised that its services would be inadequate to meet the need.

The supervised injection site, which is meant to fill the gap until a permanent site opens in Sandy Hill later this fall, was hurriedly opened by Ottawa Public Health in response to escalating numbers of overdoses in the city in recent months, in part, due to the introduction of fentanyl into the drug supply.

The interim site is also a response to a pop-up site opened — without legal exemption — in August in a Lowertown park. That site, run by the volunteer group Overdose Prevention Ottawa, has had more than 1,000 visits since it opened on Aug. 25.

In a statement Monday, OPO called the Clarence Street site “a step in the right direction” but said it would continue to offer services at 307 Patrick St. from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

“In the midst of (Tuesday)’s opening of Ottawa Public Health’s interim Clarence Street supervised injection site, and after taking lengthy consideration of what our guests have told us, it is clear that our work is not over.”

Ottawa Public Health moved quickly to open the interim site after overdoses continued to escalate this year.

Ottawa’s chief medical officer, Dr. Isra Levy, said the average number of suspected overdoses in the city went from two to three a day earlier in the year to an average of three to four a day. One day this summer there were a dozen suspected overdoses seen by emergency health officials. And those seen at emergency departments and by paramedics only represent some of the overdoses, say health officials. Many addicts do not call 911.

Ottawa Public Health is using the drug exemption Health Canada granted to the Sandy Hill Community Centre to open a supervised injection site there. The need for renovations and hiring meant that location would not open until later this fall. The interim site has been approved for 120 days, but Levy did not rule out seeking an extension to keep the service available in the Market.

The Clarence Street site has long been home to an Ottawa Public Health harm reduction program.

The supervised injection room, which Ottawa public health officials opened to the media late Monday, is about 10 by 12 feet and includes two open stainless steel booths for injecting. There are also two chairs where clients can wait and space for a nurse to supervise the site.

The site is small compared with others. Sandy Hill will have five booths. Vancouver’s Insite has 12.

Clients each have 20 minutes for one injection and cannot share drugs or assist with injections. Ottawa Public Health collects information, although it is done anonymously.

Overdose Prevention Ottawa raised concerns that the limitations Ottawa Public Health is placing on the site means many people will refuse to use it.

It called the “one injection per person per visit within 20 minutes” policy “of deep concern.

“This policy is an overdose risk, not a means of prevention. A policy refusing assisted injection is also problematic. An environment forbidding the option of inhaling drugs is also problematic. Minimal involvement of people who use drugs in service delivery is alarming and problematic.

“The guiding principle of any effective harm reduction strategy or service must be centred on the experience and wisdom of current and former drug users.”

Public health officials said the 20-minute limit was simply to make sure as many people as possible could use the service. It will be open from 3 p.m. until 8 p.m. seven days a week to start, but the plan is to have it open 12 hours a day by Oct. 10.

Levy said Ottawa Public Health will be assessing the site as it goes to see how it is meeting the needs. He added that Ottawa Public Health has a long track record of building trust with its clients.

Rob Boyd, the director of the Oasis program at the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre, called the opening a “huge deal. We have been working on this for over six years.”

He said the opening of the pop-up tent in August helped make the issue real for many people.

“The pop-up tent provided a concrete symbol to the community for the crisis that it was. We were unable to raise those alarm bells because so much of it was hidden for so long in bathrooms and stairwells in the city.

“This really ignited the spark that this is a crisis going on in the city and that we need to get everybody on board with doing something about it.”

By Elizabeth Payne
Source: Ottawa Citizen