Saving lives at Calgary’s supervised consumption site

Red Deer working to choose a site

In its first month the life-saving staff at Calgary’s new supervised drug consumption site responded to 26 overdoses.

Claire O’Gorman, program co-ordinator of Safeworks that operates the site, said only two overdoses required EMS attendance so the majority were handled by registered nurses on site.

Temporarily operating in an ATCO trailer in the parking lot of Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre in Calgary’s downtown core, the site opened Oct. 30. A permanent site under construction at the centre is expected to open in the new year.

O’Gorman said 224 different individuals accessed the site in the first month, and there were 990 visits with 84 per cent of visitors there to use drugs.

“I sort of did expect these types of numbers. There’s certainly a really big need in our community and I think quite truthfully it’s just beginning to touch some of that,” O’Gorman said.

Clients must be at least 16 to use drugs at the site and are encouraged to stay up to two hours after using drugs.

With Red Deer in the process of determining a location for its supervised consumption site, her advice was to involve people with lived drug experience in designing the program. Safeworks also maintains a good relationship with the city’s vulnerable population.

“We’ve been around for a long time offering harm reduction and needle distribution in our community and I think having that existing trust and relationship and understanding our client population has been really important.”

Staff are welcoming and non-judgmental and feedback has been positive, she said.

“We’ve heard that people just think it’s fabulous. To me that’s the greatest indicator of success, that our clients feel that it’s meeting their needs.”

Red Deer is considering six possible locations for its supervised consumption site — Turning Point, Safe Harbour facilities, Red Deer hospital, or health clinics in Johnstone Park, 49th Street, or Bremnar Avenue.

A public hearing on the locations will be held Tuesday at 6 p.m. in city council chambers.

Calgary’s site is located at an Alberta Health Services (AHS) facility where Safeworks, an AHS outreach program, has its home base.

O’Gorman said locating the AHS consumption site at an AHS facility in the downtown core serving the inner city population made the most sense because of the high number of overdoses there.

“We have a really high concentration, not necessarily of overdose deaths, but of EMS call outs to overdoses happening within sort of a two-block radius of the Chumir.”

The site is open from 9 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. every day with three staff on at all times including two registered nurses. Clients also have access to a social worker and dietician.

She said those coming to the site are experiencing multiple forms of vulnerability and are at a really high risk of not only overdose but other health problems related to injection drug use.

“So this is an opportunity to not only address an overdose when it happens, or prevent it in the first place, but also have harm reduction conversations and provide some really good education and teaching as well as connect people to care and services.”

She said about 16 per cent of visits were by people who weren’t there to use drugs but connect with Safeworks or get harm reduction supplies. A total of 138 naloxone kits were distributed in the first month.

“We’re engaging with people who have not engaged with our services in the past. I’m not sure for what reasons that might have been. It’s been a really great opportunity to form new relationships and get people engaged into care.”

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