A provincial Mobile Medical Unit, first deployed to Whistler during the 2010 Olympics, has been set up in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside to treat people suffering from drug overdoses.
The facility is located at 58 West Hastings St., the property where the city recently kicked out residents of a homeless tent city.
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"This is a satellite emergency department. This is where the ambulances will be bringing people who suffered an overdose in the community, rather than bringing them to St. Paul's emergency department," said Dr. Patricia Daly, Vancouver Coastal Health's chief medical health officer.
The Downtown Eastside neighbourhood is ground zero for an opioid overdose crisis that is ravaging the province.
This year alone, more than 620 people have died of illicit drug overdoses in B.C., many of which involve the potent opioid, fentanyl.
"We know that in the month of November, the Vancouver Fire Department responded to 1,255 overdoses," said Daly. "They are overwhelmed. Ambulance is overwhelmed. St. Paul's emergency department is overwhelmed. They need to be able to do the rest of their work."
Daly said the facility will be staffed 18 hours a day by an emergency physician, an emergency nurse and an addictions physician.
"The doctors will decide which patients will be coming here. There's a few patients they still want to bring to the hospital, but that's really up to … the emergency physicians to decide which patients are appropriate for this site," said Daly, adding that people can be linked directly with addiction treatment at the site, if they're ready for that.
"Just like any emergency department, there will be security here, but anybody walking up who's with someone who needs emergency treatment, primarily, we think, because of overdoses, will be able come in here," she said.
B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake took a tour of the facility along with various health officials on Monday, as Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott announced changes to make supervised injection sites, like Insite, easier to set up.
Earlier Monday, Lake signed a ministerial order making the provincial operation of temporary overdose prevention sites legal.
There are now four of the overdose prevention sites operating in Vancouver, with two more in the works.
The sites are like supervised injection sites and carefully labelled to side-step the federal application process but without the same range of nursing services, according to Daly.
Lake welcomed the federal announcement on Monday.
"I think it's safe to say that we will see, you know, a large expansion of supervised consumption sites in the province of B.C.," he said.
When asked about the cost of the new 'satellite emergency room,' Lake said he didn't know.
"I didn't ask that, because it didn't matter. We needed to set this up. We needed to get it working. We'll worry about the money later," he said.
"I know whatever we spend here is going to have benefits downstream. The pressure is on the ambulance service, on St. Paul's. At the end of the day, it may not be extra money, but we'll worry about that later."
According to Daly, the facility is expected to cost about $10,000 per day.
Daly was clear that there would be no injection services or facilities for drug users at the 58 West Hastings site, unlike the nearby overdose prevention sites, Insite, and the Dr. Peters Centre facility.
She wasn't sure how many patients the facility will be able to handle at a time. It will be open from 9 a.m. until 3 a.m. PT each day.
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