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Reaction to changes coming to Red Deer’s overdose prevention site

Decision will put more strain on overstretched frontline healthcare workers, says NDP
Red Deer’s overdose prevention site has been operated by community harm reduction agency Turning Point since October 2018. (Contributed)

Changes in store for Red Deer’s overdose prevention site are being called everything from an exciting step in the right direction to devastating.

On Friday, the government announced the site run by community harm reduction agency Turning Point will transition to a mobile site operated by Alberta Health Services over the next three to six months.

Red Deer South MLA Jason Stephan said the downtown has suffered greatly from lawlessness in the area around the site which has been unfair to small businesses.

“The status quo is unacceptable. This will help stem the exodus of local businesses from downtown,” Stephan said.

“This is a positive change and I’m excited for our community. It’s a good day.”

He said the site needs to operate in a more accountable way that not only supports and respects individuals struggling with addiction but also the local businesses and citizens. Services in Lethbridge transitioned to the same type of model which greatly improved things.

“Speaking with some of the local civic leaders and concerned citizens in Lethbridge, this transition was a really positive thing so we have sort of first-hand evidence of how this transition has blessed the community, and I really want that for Red Deer,” Stephan said.


Turning Point unsure of rationale behind AHS assuming operations of Red Deer OPS

But Euan Thomson, with Each + Every: Businesses for Harm Reduction, warned the Lethbridge experience has been deadly for many.

He said prior to AHS taking over the Lethbridge site, Lethbridge and Red Deer had similar rates of fatal drug poisonings. But when AHS took over and services were reduced to fit into a mobile unit, overdose deaths jumped in Lethbridge.

According to the Alberta Substance Use Surveillance System, deaths in Lethbridge increased from 49 in 2020, to 67 in 2021 and 68 during the first 11 months of 2022. Meanwhile, Red Deer went from 49 deaths in 2020, to 39 in 2021 and 39 during those same months in 2022.

“Lethbridge has exploded. It is now the hardest hit region of the entire province,” said Thomson, of Calgary.

“It’s just really, really sad what’s going on down in Lethbridge, and a direct consequence of them having closed down the busiest supervised consumption site in the entire continent at the time,” he said about the only site in Alberta that had inhalation booths for clients, in addition to injection booths.

He said the mobile units often end up as stationary sites, and what the province is doing is taking the Red Deer site away from an agency that has built trust with clients over the years which will result in a drop in usage and more outdoor debris.

Turning Point took on the operation of the temporary overdose prevention site, located in an ATCO trailer in Safe Harbour Society’s parking lot, on Oct. 1, 2018 in response to community concerns about the rising rate of overdose fatalities. Since opening, the OPS has had 168,957 site visits, and medical staff have reversed 5,490 suspected overdoses.

“These people know what they’re doing,” Thomson said about Turning Point.

“There are people out there trying to convey this message that these as dirty sites that draw in crime and draw in undesirable people,” Thomson added.

”But really what they do is respond to a need that already exists in a location and meets people where they’re at and in fact reduces the incidents of undesirable consequences like discarded syringes, like public overdoses, and saves lives while they’re at it.”


Substance use disorder continues to be “shrouded in stigma and shame”

The Alberta NDP also disagreed with the UCP’s upcoming changes to Red Deer’s overdose prevention site.

“The UCP’s decision to move services from a reputable non-profit provider into AHS will only put more strain on overstretched frontline healthcare workers and increase wait times in the hospital,” said Lori Sigurdson, NDP critic for mental health and addictions, in a statement.

“If AHS has nursing staff available, they should be immediately employed in the Red Deer Regional Hospital or any of the 11 rural hospitals in central Alberta which are partially closed due to severe staffing shortages caused by the UCP.”

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