Vancouver Public Library reverses staff policy on responding to overdoses

The Central Branch of the Vancouver Public Library is seen in downtown Vancouver, BC. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Douglas Williams

Vancouver Public Library staff will now be allowed to respond to overdoses inside their buildings, as long as they are trained to do so, the city confirmed Friday.

The move is a reversal of a previous policy that directed library and other public facility staff in the city not to intervene or administer naloxone.

Vancouver’s city manager Sadhu Johnston said the change marks a shift away from the city’s reliance on front line staff and first responders, who until now had been the only ones allowed to administer naloxone.

“Our policy has been evolving as the [overdose] crisis has been evolving,” Johnston said. “What we’re seeing is overdoses are happening in other types of facilities across the entire city, so now what we’re doing is enabling those staff members that have been trained to administer naloxone if they come across someone that’s [overdosing] while at work.”
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Johnston said the policy will also apply to Park Board staff and people who work at other city facilities, as long as those staff members are on shift at the time they encounter an overdose.

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Libraries and other public facilities have long been havens to both homeless people and addicts, often serving as places to briefly get away from cold or nasty weather. That led many people to question why library and park staff weren’t allowed to intervene.

At an event on Monday, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson was asked about the policy, and said the order to stay clear was due to safety concerns.

“With the rest of city staff, it’s still a process of training and determining exactly… the incidents of overdose are far fewer for those, the rest of city staff,” he said then.

“We have quite a few front-line workers on the streets and first responders that obviously are trained for this,” he added, saying equipping other staff was under review.

Johnston didn’t say whether that review had been completed, but seemed to contradict the mayor’s comment that city staff see far fewer overdoses than emergency workers.

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“It’s not a Downtown Eastside issue, it’s not just an at-home issue,” he said. “People are overdosing in all sorts of locations, including city facilities.”

Johnston said there’s no broad training program set up with the city yet, but the idea is something that will be looked at in the future. For now, staff will have to train themselves on how to administer naloxone on their own time, which is a step the city manager supports.

“This crisis is lasting much longer than any of us thought it might,” Johnston said. “We’re really encouraging all people to be trained and ready to respond. This response requires all of us together helping to overcome it.”

More than 1,400 people died of suspected drug overdoses in B.C. last year. In January this year alone, Vancouver saw 33 overdose fatalities, the most of any B.C. city.

With files from Simon Little

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