News / Calgary

Coalition: A question of when, not if, Calgary’s next supervised consumption sites will open

A temporary facility will operate in the Sheldon M. Chumir’s surface parking lot until a permanent one opens inside the health centre next year

This temporary supervised consumption service facility in the Sheldon M. Chumir's surface parking lot in Calgary will open this November. A permanent facility inside the building is expected to open in January 2018.

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This temporary supervised consumption service facility in the Sheldon M. Chumir's surface parking lot in Calgary will open this November. A permanent facility inside the building is expected to open in January 2018.

Sometime in November, a modest-looking trailer in downtown Calgary will begin offering supervised consumption services to those in our city who are at risk of dying from an overdose.

According to the Calgary Coalition on Supervised Consumption (CCSC), the need for the service is so great that it’s a question of when and how, not if, Calgary will apply to open more sites.

There have been 149 recorded fentanyl-related overdose deaths in Calgary between January and August of this year – that’s enough people to comfortably fill a CTrain car – and countless more overdoses.

In fact, according to the most recent provincial health data available, there were 806 opioid-related events in Calgary that EMS responded to between January and June this year.

Last week, the province announced Health Canada had approved Calgary’s application to open a temporary supervised consumption site at the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre and a permanent one as soon as it could be constructed – making it the first city in Alberta to offer the harm reduction service which health officials claim saves lives, reduces transmission of infections and builds safer communities by reducing public substance use and the prevalence of discarded needles.

“We know in addition to the Sheldon Chumir site, there's additional need in the community – based on the number of overdoses we see happening in Calgary,” said Leslie Hill, executive director of HIV Community Link and coalition member.

“Calgary has the highest number of overdoses in the province and that number continues to increase – so we know that there will be multiple responses required.”

Hill said the CCSC is currently determining where potential new sites would be best located and hope to have details to share with Calgarians by the end of the year.

“We’re working to determine which service providers should be providing this and in what areas,” she said.

Alberta Health Services (AHS) isn't publicly announcing the temporary site’s exact opening date in order to protect the privacy of its clients, according to Associate Minister of Health Brandy Payne, but she confirmed it will be sometime in November.

“A lot of hard work has gone into making sure that we could open the doors (at the Chumir) as quickly as possible and I think it really speaks to the importance that everyone sees in this work,” Payne told Metro.

“Calgary’s a city that’s been hard hit by the opioid crisis and I think this will be a way we can help save some lives.”

She encouraged anyone who might be interested in using the site to get in touch with Safeworks, HIV Community Link, or any other frontline harm reduction agencies in Calgary.

“They will be able to provide them with that information,” Payne said.

Construction on a permanent facility inside the Chumir’s main building, funded with $2.2 million from the province, is already underway and is expected to open in January.

Safeworks, a needle distribution and harm reduction agency offered through AHS that has been around for 28 years in Calgary, will operate the sites.

“It will be our team of nurses, social workers and administrative staff that will be offering these services,” said Claire O’Gorman, program coordinator at Safeworks.

“We have some nurses with backgrounds in mental health and addiction and some with backgrounds in urgent care – it’s a really great mix of fantastic skills and experience.”

There will be two registered nurses (RNs) and one administrative staff member on duty at the temporary site during operating hours, according to O’Gorman. Services will be offered between 9 a.m. and 11:30 p.m., every day.

“We’ve been tracking the busiest hours for (our needle distribution program), so we wanted to make sure we’re open during those busy hours,” O’Gorman explained.

“When we get operational in the permanent site we’ll hopefully scale up our hours of operation – the nice thing about the temporary site is it’s an opportunity to see how things go and what the demand is like, and we can adjust our hours accordingly – so if we see there’s a really big lineup in the morning, we’ll know we need to adjust.”

The temporary facility, which has capacity for 10 people to be inside at one time, has a waiting room, four ‘consumption booths,’ and a monitoring room.

“People can snort, swallow or inject their substances in the booth,” O’Gorman said. “The monitoring room is where people will go after they’ve used, so they can hang out and we can observe for things like overdoses and other adverse reactions. Smoking substances is not allowed.

O’Gorman said a client’s length of stay will depend on the individual, how and what they used, and what other needs staff might be able to help address.

“We’ll be able to respond to overdoses directly but also hopefully prevent overdoses from occurring in the first place, because people can use their substances in an environment that’s a little more stable,” she said.

She added that the site will be closely monitored by AHS and the province, and adjustments to the model will be made as needed.

“And the community has an opportunity for ongoing input, too – if they notice that things aren’t working, they can bring that forward and we can work together to mitigate anything that comes up," O'Gorman said.

Five other permanent sites in Edmonton and Lethbridge, approved by Health Canada earlier this month, are anticipated to open in late 2017 or early 2018.

Hill explained that the opioid crisis is playing out in differently in Edmonton and Calgary, so their approach to establishing services have been quite different.

Unlike Edmonton, which has a central area where overdoses tend to occur and therefore will see fairly clustered services, Calgary will need to cover more ground, according to Hill.

“Here in Calgary, the areas that need supervised consumption services are more diverse and cover a larger geographical area, so we have to think about that,” she said.

“Once the locations are determined, our intention is to do community engagement in each of those areas.”

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