Officials preparing for loss of DTES Mobile Medical Unit

Health officials in Vancouver are getting ready for the end of the Downtown Eastside deployment of the province's Mobile Medical Unit.

The Mobile Medical Unit served about 1,500 patients in the first 2 months it was set up in Vancouver

Vancouver Coastal Health's chief medical health officer, Dr. Patricia Daly, stands at the entrance to a 'satellite emergency department' set up in the Downtown Eastside to take the pressure off emergency services. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Since mid-December, hundreds of people in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside have relied on the province's Mobile Medical Unit (MMU) for emergency treatment when suffering from an overdose.

Hundreds more have dropped in at the facility, which is set up at 58 West Hastings St., to ask about — or get started in — addiction treatment.

In the first two month the MMU was set up, about 1,500 patients visited the facility. A little more than a quarter of those people were there as a result of an illicit drug overdose, according to VCH.

"We've had it now in place for several months here, and we appreciate that, but we understand that it might be needed elsewhere in the province at any time for emergency purposes," said Dr. Patricia Daly, Chief Medical Heath Officer with Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH).

The MMU was always intended as a temporary measure to deal with the overdose crisis ravaging the neighbourhood.

Overdose crisis far from over

"The primary reason for deploying it was to relieve a lot of the pressure on B.C. Ambulance and St. Paul's Hospital emergency department, because at the end of November and December, we had a real spike in overdoses in Vancouver, particularly in the Downtown Eastside," said Daly.

Overdose victim in the Downtown Eastside, Vancouver. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Daly said that January — the most recent month with confirmed numbers — had the highest rate of overdose deaths to date. But she said that overdose cases ending up at the MMU or St. Paul's hospital peaked in early January.

"The crisis certainly is not over," said Daly. "It's very upsetting. We have to remember that these are primarily adults in the prime of their life. These deaths are preventable."

Changing MMU service

The MMU deployment to Hastings Street was initially intended as a satellite emergency room, staffed by an emergency physician, an addictions physician, and nursing staff.

"After a few weeks, the emergency physicians felt that their presence was not needed, that those [low risk] overdoses could be safely managed by a nurse with the addictions doctor present," said Daly.

The inside of the overdose treatment facility set up on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Officials are working to fill service gaps as they prepare for the temporary facility to close. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The daily cost dropped from $10,000 to $4,000 on Jan. 20, as the 18 hour day was reduced to 12 hours, and the emergency doctor staffing ended.

The MMU deployment has cost VCH about $650,000 to date. The Provincial Health Services Authority has put in roughly $39,000 so far for set up costs and daily maintenance.

New permanent services opening up

"We certainly don't want to give the message that when the deployment ends, that it's because we don't value the community," said Daly. "We're trying to get them connected to more permanent services."

Daly points to various other new facilities that are opening up in the community, namely the Connections Clinic near Oppenheimer Park where people can drop in and get started on addiction therapies like suboxone and methadone.

Five overdose prevention sites, where drug consumption is supervised, are now open in the neighbourhood in addition to Insite.

Daly added that the HUB, an emergency room expansion for mental health and addictions treatment scheduled to open up at St. Paul's this spring, will address some of the lost services when the MMU is moved.

A man in a high-visibility vest walks down a Downtown Eastside alley in Vancouver. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

For Sarah Blyth, co-founder of the nearby Overdose Prevention Society, the MMU will be missed.

"Of course, you know, we would like to keep it," said Blyth, "It's been really good to have it there. It shows that the emergency has been taken seriously."

But Blyth has been expecting the deployment to end eventually, and she believes the new services should fill the gap.

Daly said there isn't a set date for the MMU to shut down in the Downtown Eastside, but the community can expect to lose it in the coming weeks or months.

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker