Now that Vernon, B.C.’s overdose prevention site has been operating for nearly a year, the Downtown Vernon Association said there is “some guarded optimism” about having the site in the downtown core.
“We are, I think, as a community quite pleased with the service that they’ve been able to provide and the number of deaths that they’ve been able to prevent by having the service in our community,” said Susan Lehman, executive director of the Downtown Vernon Association.
“We encourage the staff to continue doing what they are doing. They have been very good neighbours to the businesses around them.”
The site is meant to help keep people alive as British Columbia continues to struggle with an overdose crisis. It’s an uphill battle.
Last year alone, 26 people died in the North Okanagan city after using illicit drugs.
However, installing an overdose prevention site in the city’s downtown was controversial.
Before the project even got off the ground, Interior Health paused it for more than a year.
There were concerns about the impact on businesses, if it was located downtown, and some suggested it should be set up at the city’s hospital.
However, in May of 2020, in the midst of what would turn out to be a bad year for drug toxicity deaths in the city, Interior Health announced it would go ahead with the Vernon overdose prevention site in the downtown core.
Among other services, the site offers a supervised setting for people to use illicit drugs so someone can respond if they overdose.
This week, after nearly a year of operations, the health authority gave an update to city council.
Between May 2020 and March 2021, the site saw 30 overdoses, but only one person needed to be taken to hospital and no one died.
For the health authority, those relatively positive overdose outcomes are a sign the site is having an impact.
“These are 30 people that are still here with us, able to connect with friends and family, continue forward and have another opportunity,” Interior Health medical health officer Dr. Karin Goodison said.
According to the Downtown Vernon Association, having the site in the neighbourhood has not been as bad as expected.
“After having talked with some of the neighbouring businesses recently, some of the concerns that were raised when the overdose prevention site first opened have not come to pass so the businesses say, ‘So far, so good,’ said Lehman.
Goodison is not surprised launching the new service has gone better than some expected.
“We are actually having really non-stigmatizing interactions with people and enabling them to access other supports that they might not have been able to access previously.”
Still, stigma remains a challenge to preventing overdose deaths. Last year there were 26 illicit drug deaths in Vernon and roughly two thirds of the overdoses in the Vernon Local Health Area happened in private residences.
The medical health officer said some are concerned they will face judgment if they seek harm reduction services.
The overdose prevention site was never expected to be a silver bullet when it came to addressing substance use and the health authority is adding additional supports to the Vernon area to increase “capacity to support people who are wanting to consider treatment opportunities.”
“Under the new public health order from Bonnie Henry we are training nurses to be able to provide treatments including pharmaceutical alternatives. That is rolling out in the Vernon area,” Goodison said.