A look inside Vernon's overdose prevention site - InfoNews

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A look inside Vernon's overdose prevention site

The 'chill-out' room.
May 26, 2020 - 8:00 AM

On a non-descriptive street in downtown Vernon, across the road from a strip club, and around the corner from a methadone clinic, is the newly opened overdose prevention site.

Fraught with controversy and push-back from some in the community, the clinic allows intravenous drug users to inject their own supply of drugs while inside the clinic.

The small room where people who use substances are allowed to inject is as cold and clinical as any other room in a health care clinic. There are two stainless steel tables, each with a lamp and a mirror. And there's a box for used syringes.

Posters on the wall advise clients of which parts of the body to inject, classifying them as "safer" or "try to avoid" or "dangerous." The arms are the safest place, wrists and the groin the most dangerous.

"Avoid injecting into the penis. There's a high chance it could become infected, causing serious problems," reads the sign.

There's an oxygen machine and a drawer of medical supplies. It's a far cry from how heroin-use looks in the movies.

"We want to bring people from out on the streets to do this safely so they don't die," Interior Health Authority mental health and substance use director Colleen McEwan says. "We see this as part of the treatment, and there is a goal... when they are ready to move along to wellness we will be here."

The overdose prevention site opened May 12 in the former site of an Interior Health clinic on 32 Avenue in downtown Vernon. The clinic is designed to be far more than just a place for people to inject drugs. There's more than a dozen healthcare staff on-site and two psychiatrists. Staff give out harm reduction supplies, which include needles, naloxone and drug testing kits among other things. The clinic is open from Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and staff estimate about 10 people a day will use it. While we were there before it opened, two people stopped by.

the overdose prevention site room.
the overdose prevention site room.

The site opened roughly one year after the health authority announced it would be opening such a site. Push-back from some in the community was strong.

McEwan said one of the misconceptions people have about overdose prevention sites is they are enabling.

"We're not creating people that use drugs, we are supporting people who use drugs in a safe way," she said. "What we learnt in the past with treatment is that you would force somebody into treatment and it wouldn't work and they would just use again."

At the clinic, staff form relationships with clients. Trust is built-up and staff help with a myriad of other issues, like wound care and abscesses, along with other issues that otherwise may end in hospitalizations. The clinic offers support and counselling, and will even give people help with housing.

People will come in and have their supply of illicit drugs tested for fentanyl. They'll then prepare their drugs and inject them. Some stay for one minute, others half an hour. There's a 'chill-out room', painted green with soft lighting, with the words "strength" and "hope" framed on the wall. After injecting, drug users will wait in the room so staff can monitor them before they leave. While the room is in stark contrast to the other sterile rooms at the clinic, there's no couch and the room doesn't exactly scream comfort.

Which begs the question: Why would anyone choose to come here to inject?

"People don't want to die," says Jennifer Glen, a nurse at the clinic.

While opioid use has been around for a long time, the introduction of fentanyl into the mix changed things. In 2012 there were 12 fentanyl-related deaths in B.C. By 2018 the number had spiked to 1,334. Numbers have started to drop and in 2019 there were 833 deaths province-wide and 15 in Vernon. Up until March 31 this year there had been four fatalities in Vernon.

information poster on the wall.
information poster on the wall.

In the early afternoon the following day, Donney Neigum sits on the steps across the road from the overdose prevention clinic. He's shaking and fidgets constantly. He says he didn't know the clinic was there but he would use it if he still injected.

"Especially these days, there's too much of everything going...," he starts to say before he trails off and is difficult to understand.

Why would he use the overdose prevention site?

"Because you can easily die, I've already died twice by injecting," he says.

He lists off the opium substitutes he's taken, suboxone, methadone, and something else. He says he's just got out of prison. He doesn't confirm this, however, iNFOnews.ca previously wrote about him when he was sentenced to three years in jail for robbing a Salmon Arm liquor store at knifepoint. His criminal record is lengthy and related to his drug addiction.

While Neigum fits the stereotype of those who would use the overdose prevention clinic, the statistics show a more complex picture.

A 2018 B.C. Coroners Service report shows almost 50 per cent of those who fatality overdosed were employed. Two-thirds died in a private residence and the majority of people while they were alone.

Concerns about the clinic's location, which is also across the road from MQN Architecture and Interior Design and Beach Radio's offices, came from some councillors and the Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce who argued the Vernon Jubilee Hospital would be a better site. It's too early to see if concerns of compounding drug use and loitering near the clinic will occur.

McEwan says the site was chosen because this is the area where most overdoses in the city take place. While critics fear more used needles on the streets, the clinic says overdose prevention sites take people off the streets.

Somewhat unusually, the overdose prevention clinic is one only a few in the province run by a health authority and not a third party contractor. McEwan stresses she has every faith in contractors but Interior Health running the clinic themselves will mean they can address any issues that arise in a swift manner. The decision came about because of the sensitivity in the community, she says.

It's also worth noting that while this type of overdose prevention site may be the first in Vernon, homeless shelters throughout the city have their own overdose prevention sites for those who are registered at the shelter.

The overdose prevention site on 32 Avenue, Vernon.
The overdose prevention site on 32 Avenue, Vernon.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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