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B.C. to review plans for two Surrey overdose-prevention sites

An overdose-prevention site is a place where people can use illicit drugs while being monitored by staff or volunteers trained to resuscitate them if they overdose.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

British Columbia's Health Minister has asked the chief executive officer of the Fraser Health Authority to review the plans for two "overdose-prevention sites" announced for Surrey after The Globe and Mail reported they do not exist yet.

The Globe reported on Monday that rather than open the two sites, as ordered by Health Minister Terry Lake in early December, the Fraser Health Authority opted to expand services such as outreach and shelter hours at existing facilities.

Mr. Lake said on Monday that he contacted Fraser Health president and CEO Michael Marchbank that morning and asked that he look into potential barriers.

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"I want him to look at whether or not there could be a barrier for people accessing [overdose-prevention services] and evaluate the effectiveness of the current [harm-reduction] sites," the Health Minister said.

"We know there are supervised consumption sites that are being applied for, but until then, I think it's important that we make sure there are no barriers to people in Surrey."

An overdose-prevention site is a place where people can use illicit drugs while being monitored by staff or volunteers trained to resuscitate them if they overdose. The province announced in December it would open more than 20 such sites as a temporary, emergency measure due to freezing temperatures and the province's unprecedented number of overdose deaths while health authorities awaited federal approval to open official supervised injection sites.

One was planned for Surrey's Quibble Creek Sobering and Assessment Centre and another in a "mobile medical-support unit" on 135 A Street, more commonly known as the Surrey Strip.

Victoria Lee, chief medical health officer for Fraser Health, said the health authority instead enhanced services at the two locations, for example, expanding shelter hours, stationing a mobile medical unit on the Strip to respond to overdoses and hiring new staff members for a shelter and drop-in centre.

Suspected overdoses in the Fraser Health region have decreased from 5.5 a day in December to 4.5 a day in February, Dr. Lee said, suggesting these strategies are working.

But a person who picks up sterile supplies at one of the locations, for example, would still have to use elsewhere.

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Vancouver opened five overdose-prevention sites in December. Between Dec. 8 and Jan. 22, they recorded more than 10,000 visits and 115 overdose reversals, according to Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH).

Mr. Lake made his comments to The Globe on Monday at the opening of the Connections clinic in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, a program about five years in the making. It is one of few clinics where drug users can access addiction treatment on demand; addictions physicians emphasize that it is crucial to capture this population in the moment they want help.

Ronald Joe, medical director for Connections, said the idea is to operate a community clinic like a hospital, opening seven days a week and for expanded hours. Clinic staff includes physicians, nurses, pharmacists, counsellors, peer advisers and social workers.

"In my experience, there is a small window of opportunity when people who are untreated in their addiction are open to obtaining treatment," he said. "This is what this site is about: It will welcome people on a walk-in basis when they want to be treated. … We hope to provide a comprehensive medical assessment when someone walks in, and provide their first dose of Suboxone or methadone within the hour."

The clinic is projected to treat 600 people annually, on top of the more than 3,000 people receiving opioid-addiction treatment through other programs in Vancouver, according to VCH.

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Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More

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