Calgary safe consumption site records 1,000 visits in first 2 months

Supervised consumption site numbers remain consistent two months after opening, says Safeworks program coordinator Claire O'Gorman.

Calgary's first supervised consumption site draws 40 to 60 users a day

An injection kit is shown at a supervised injection facility in Vancouver. Calgary's first safe consumption site, has attracted more than 42,000 visits since it opened over a year ago. The Alberta government has frozen funding on additional new safe injection sites pending a government review. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The new Calgary safe consumption site has only been open for two months, but it may have already saved more than two dozen lives.

That's the figure given by registered nurse Claire O'Gorman, the program coordinator at Safeworks.

O'Gorman works at the supervised consumption site, located in an ATCO trailer in the parking lot of the Sheldon Chumir Centre in downtown Calgary.

She spoke to The Homestretch on Tuesday afternoon.

"In the first month, we saw 26 overdoses on site," O'Gorman said, "And only two required an EMS response, so [that means] they were overdoses that weren't able to be managed by nurses with oxygen and naloxone alone but [also] needed a little more support."

Registration process builds trust

The downtown consumption site has received more than 1,000 visitors in its first two months, and held steady over the frigid holidays, O'Gorman said.

"Right now we're seeing on average 40 to 60 visits per day," she said. "And that's been pretty consistent since the end of November. That didn't change too much over the holidays when certainly people were coming through the doors."

The site attempts to build a connection with users through its intake process, which combines efforts to learn about a user's health history with respect for their privacy.

"Folks come into the site and we do a bit of a registration process. If it's their first time there, that's a little more involved... because we want an opportunity to let them know what to expect from the service and what we can expect from them.

"We do collect some health information, but it's not mandatory, so we take as much or as little as they care to share with us. People can use a pseudonym if they want to and they certainly don't have to show any identification or a healthcare card."

"We want to be there for all sorts of substances"

Users have to supply their own drugs, which can vary, as does their means of ingesting them, O'Gorman said.

"We're seeing all sorts of drug consumption," she said. "People bring in pre-obtained drugs, they're typically illicit substances, everything from stimulants such as crystal meth and cocaine to depressants or opioids such as heroin or fentanyl.

"The main concern is that fentanyl is making its way into every substance and causing cross contamination, which is causing the majority of overdoses and overdose deaths. So we want to be there for all sorts of substances."

Staff at safe consumption sites can prevent overdose deaths and it is recommended that users access these sites wherever possible. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Providing wraparound care

The site supervises drug intake, while also offering post-consumption monitoring rooms, where users may engage with registered nurses, administrators, drug counselors and peer counselors, she said.

"That's the room where we really have the opportunity to engage with them, to have conversations to provide wraparound care, because that's the moment they're no longer in withdrawal," said o"Gorman. 

"They're more settled or stabilized, and we can begin to build that relationship and make sure they're connected to other health services and social services in our community."

Without the supervision of the consumption site staff, who were able to provide immediate access to life saving oxygen and naloxone, those 26 overdoses may have died.

"For the most part, we can manage with oxygen and naloxone, making sure someone's doing OK, monitoring them over time," O'Gorman said. "And really, that's 26 lives saved, so it's having a huge impact."

Repeat visits

The site is drawing a steady stream of visitors.

"In our first month of operation, we had 224 unique individuals access our services in 990 visits," said O'Gorman. "So we know that people are coming more than once. We have regular clients who are coming multiple times a day, often every day, which is really great and what we want to see, because that allows us to be there and should an overdose occur, we can intervene."

A permanent site is under construction, which will feature six consumption rooms and a larger post-consumption monitoring area, which will allow users a bit more time and space to engage with nurses, counselors and others.

Small talk 

They don't start as big conversations, she says, but sometimes small talk is a big deal.

"They're often really casual and built upon and rely upon a trusting, non-judgmental relationship that we build over time with someone," she said.

"Often, on the first visit, they might be a little more hesitant to share information with us and then as they build trust over time, they might share a little more.

"And we can ask, how are things going in your life? And that might open the door to lots of different pieces of conversation."

With files from The Homestretch

The Homestretch