Hospital-based safe consumption site to open in Edmonton next week

The first safe consumption site in an acute-care hospital in North America will open at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton next week. Inpatients will be able to access health and counselling services, in addition to drug treatment services, starting Monday.

Facility at Royal Alexandra designed to help inpatients who use drugs

A safe consumption site will open Monday for inpatients at Edmonton's Royal Alexandra Hospital. (Emilio Avalos/CBC)

The first safe consumption site in any acute-care hospital in North America will open at the Royal Alexandra in Edmonton next week.

Hospital patients who use drugs will be able to access health and counselling services, in addition to drug treatment services, starting Monday.

Kathryn Dong, director of the of Addiction Recovery Community Health Program at the Royal Alex, has been working on the initiative since 2013.

"Hospitals are a dangerous and unsafe place for people who use drugs," Dong said at a news conference Tuesday, noting that patients who use drugs were expected to abstain after being admitted.

"And when abstinence was not possible, the hospital environment made it very difficult for patients to use their normal harm-reduction practices," Dong said.

"This led to patients leaving the hospital before completing their medical treatment or to hidden ongoing drug use in high-risk locations, such as private, locked washrooms."

Health Minister Sarah Hoffman told the news conference the facility is the first of its kind in any North American acute-care hospital.

Inpatients using the site will be monitored and cared for by a nurse, who will provide naloxone in the case of an overdose. 

"We are going to fight to save every single life that we can," Dong said. 

Edmonton to have 4 sites

The Royal Alex safe consumption site will be the second of four to open in Edmonton. 

The first, at Boyle Street Community Services, began operating Friday. Drug users can walk in to access health, counselling and drug-treatment services. 

Within hours of the safe consumption site opening, nurses responded to what may have otherwise been a fatal overdose.

The two other sites will run in a similar way to the Boyle Street location, offering services on a drop-in basis. They are planned for the same general area near downtown. One will be at the Boyle McCauley Health Centre and the other at the George Spady Centre.

Source of controversy

The safe consumption sites are a point of contention for many people living and operating businesses in the Boyle-McCauley area.

Resident Cris Basualdo claims documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests show the city planned for the cluster of sites before consulting the neighbourhood.

The Chinatown and Area Business Association has requested a judicial review of the approval of the drop-in sites. 

At Tuesday's news conference, Mayor Don Iveson acknowledged what he called people's fear of the sites as well as "the compelling medical and scientific evidence about the benefits of harm-reduction based approaches.

"Bottom line: it will save lives."

Opioid crisis

Safe injection sites opening across the country are being championed as part of the effort to combat the rising number of opioid overdose deaths.

From January to September 2017, there were at least 2,923 opioid overdose deaths across in Canada, according to data released Tuesday by the Public Health Agency of Canada. There is not yet a figure for the entire year. 

In all of 2017 in Alberta, 562 people died from apparent fentanyl poisoning, 135 of them in Edmonton. 

Hoffman said the province is committed to fighting the opioid crisis, noting $63 million was allocated in the 2018 budget for that reason.

"We will continue to implement programs, treatment and harm reduction initiates that will serve Albertans," Hoffman said.