Safer drug supply program in Kitchener-Waterloo gets $2.3M from Ottawa amid rise in overdose deaths

Ottawa will spend $2.3 million over 26 months to fund a safer drug supply project in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. Area MP Bardish Chagger says the program will serve 200 people in the region.

Program in Ontario city to serve 200 people over 26-month period

Local Liberal MPs, politicians and social service agencies were part of the Zoom announcement in Waterloo region Friday. (Sanguen Health Centre/Facebook)

The federal government will spend about $2.3 million over 26 months to fund a safer drug supply project in Kitchener-Waterloo.

During a Zoom announcement Friday, Waterloo MP Bardish Chagger said the program will serve 200 people in the region. 

Chagger noted that overdose deaths have increased "significantly," both nationally and locally, since the pandemic began early in 2020. 

"Physical distancing restrictions, while necessary, have made it more difficult to access some services like supervised consumption sites, counselling services and mental health supports," said Chagger, federal minister of diversity, inclusion and youth. 

"To make matters worse, the illegal drug supply has become increasingly toxic, putting people at grave risk of fatal overdoses especially if they use drugs alone."

Record overdose numbers

Last week, paramedics in Waterloo region reported 39 opioid overdoses — 11 in just one day. 

As of June 4, 49 suspected opioid overdose deaths were reported by the Waterloo Region Integrated Drug Strategy (WRIDS). Overdose deaths are considered "suspected" until they've been confirmed by the provincial coroner's office.

Last year marked an all-time high for overdose deaths in Waterloo region, with the WRIDS reporting 102 suspected deaths. 

The next highest year on record was 2017, with 86 overdose deaths.

Speaking during Friday's announcement, Dr. Chris Steingart, lead physician for the project, said that while public conversation around overdose deaths often focuses on the need for better addiction treatment — not everyone who uses drugs is ready or able to stop using right away. 

"To me addiction treatment includes taking care of people who are in that situation," said Steingart, founder and executive director of the Sanguen Health Centre. 

"Trying to reduce the risk that they face every day, being immersed in a daily basis, in finding drugs and in using drugs and just trying to survive the toxicity with which they're faced every day."  

Some already taking part

Needles at an overdose prevention site in Vancouver. Dr. Chris Steingart says the safer supply program will be part of the region's broader response to the opioid crisis, which includes the consumption treatment site in Kitchener and a rapid access addiction clinic at the House of Friendship. (Maryse Zeidler/CBC)

Steingart said the program has already started to support a handful of people in the region who are known to local social service and healthcare agencies. Those who take part will also be connected with other kinds of help, such as housing and primary healthcare, he said. 

Working with Sanguen on the project are the Working Centre and the Inner-City Health Alliance, which includes the Kitchener Downtown Community Health Centre, the Centre for Family Medicine, House of Friendship and Ray of Hope.

Although many of the agencies are based in downtown Kitchener, the program will be available to people throughout Waterloo region, including Cambridge. 

Asked what kinds of safer drugs the program will provide, Steingart declined to provide a specific list, but said the goal will be to provide a range of options, including drugs used in pre-existing safe supply programs, such as hydormorphone.