Calgary's new supervised consumption site already catching drug overdoses, co-ordinator says

Staff at Calgary's supervised drug consumption site have saved multiple lives since the site opened last week, the program co-ordinator says.

'Drug use isn't ever 100% safe. There's always risks involved,' Claire O'Gorman says

Staff at the supervised consumption site in Calgary have been able to intervene in multiple overdoses since the site opened last week. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Staff at Calgary's supervised drug consumption site have saved multiple lives since the site opened last week, the program co-ordinator says.

Drug users now are able to take their illegal substances at a temporary site set up in the parking lot of the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre in downtown Calgary. A permanent facility is under construction, all permitted due to an exemption federal law approved by Health Canada in late October.

As dangerous drugs like fentanyl are causing drug deaths to rise in Alberta, the hope is the supervised consumption site will help people get treatment for overdoses right away — and prevent them from dying.

Alberta Health Services program co-ordinator Claire O'Gorman spoke with Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray on Tuesday about how the effort is going, one week in.

Q: How exactly does it work?

A: People come in and they register with our admitting desk and they're able to offer as much or as little as they want to, so we really aim to be quite a low barrier. We don't require ID or health-care card.

From there, they move into our consumption room. We have four individual booths — they sort of look like study cubes — and in that space, people can snort, swallow or inject their drugs.

Should something happen, our staff are there to respond.

We're also there to provide education, support, new unused equipment and have conversations about harm reduction and substance use — as well as what else might be going on in their lives, such as housing, a lot of other social supports that they might need.

From there, they move into what we call the monitoring room, so it's a space where they can hang out. We're recommending 15 to 45 minutes depending on what they've used and how they've used it. That way, if any adverse reactions or overdoses occur, we can respond in that time as well.

Q: Do you know what exactly they're using?

A: Yeah. Often people tell us what they think they're using. The challenge right now with the opioid crisis is that fentanyl is finding its way into lots of other substances. So that's why these services are so important.

Q: In the week that you've been open, have people been using fentanyl at this site, that you're aware of?

A: Yes, some people have told us that that's what they're seeking, that they're seeking some sort of opioid, and often what's on the street right now is fentantyl.

Insite in Vancouver was the first city in North America to open a supervised injection site nearly 15 years ago. Now there are more than 20 sites approved in Canada. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

We've also had people say that they've been using something else and then have had a reaction that looks like it's perhaps an opioid or something that slows them down.

So we have responded to a few overdoses on site already — and none of which required an EMS response, so we were able to intervene early.

Q: Can you tell me what that's actually like for the people who are stepping in? What are you looking for and how do you intervene?

A: Typically an opioid overdose looks like someone sort of snoozing, falling asleep. Often it's referred to as a heavy nod.

If someone's doing that, it might be that they're just snoozing. Then give them a little shake, make sure they're OK, ask how they're doing, and observe the respiratory rate.

That's the really most telling thing: how quickly someone's breathing. If someone's breathing slows to the point where it's not able to oxygenate their body, that's when they run into trouble.

That's often what an overdose looks like.

When it's an opioid overdose, at that point, we're going to intervene, provide oxygen, and if it comes down to it, provide rescue breathing and Nalaxone as well.

Q: Again, this is called a supervised site, not a safe site. There's a difference there. Do you want to be clear about that?

A: Drug use isn't ever 100 per cent safe. There's always risks involved.

So we can make it safer, and what makes it safer is that it's supervised. So that's sort of the evolution of the terminology there.

A temporary supervised consumption site has been set up at the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre in Calgary. (CBC)

Q: You've only been open for a week but do you feel like you're making a difference?

A: You know what, yeah, I really feel that we are. We've already intervened in overdoses, and that's one really important piece of it.

But I feel very strongly that the other really important piece is that we're opening doors. We're providing health services to folks who might not otherwise access services.

We're bringing them in, we're building relationships and we're establishing some trust — and I think that to me is just the most important thing we can do.

With files from Caroline Wagner and the Calgary Eyeopener