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Downtown Vernon Association expresses ‘guarded optimism’ about overdose prevention site

Click to play video: 'Controversial Vernon overdose prevention site having an impact' Controversial Vernon overdose prevention site having an impact
WATCH: One of the services designed to respond to the ongoing opioid crisis in the Okanagan, is an overdose prevention site in Vernon. The location of the centre was controversial from the start. Now after almost a year of operations, the health authority says the site has intervened in more than two dozen overdoses and an area business group is feeling cautiously optimistic about having the service in its neighbourhood. – Apr 14, 2021

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.”

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The site is meant to help keep people alive as British Columbia continues to struggle with an overdose crisis. It’s an uphill battle.

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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.

Read more: Downtown location for Vernon overdose prevention site controversial

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.

Read more: Okanagan mothers speak out on 5th anniversary of B.C. overdose health emergency

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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.

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Goodison is not surprised launching the new service has gone better than some expected.

“What we are doing is allowing people to come in [and] have a safe space to be. There is actually a chill room there so after you have used your opioid you can move over into this nice little room where you can just chill out for a little bit and then you go back out and go about your day so this isn’t have a negative impact, people aren’t hanging around the space,” said Goodison.
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“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.”

Click to play video: 'Okanagan mothers speak out to save lives' Okanagan mothers speak out to save lives
Okanagan mothers speak out to save lives – Apr 14, 2021

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.

“We are still working at how do we engage a population of people who may have some concerns about accessing [services]?” Goodison said.

The medical health officer said some are concerned they will face judgment if they seek harm reduction services.

“I think stigma [is] still one of our largest challenges and we really want to reach out to those two-thirds of people who may or may not be accessing services as effectively,” Goodison said.
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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.

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