After string of overdose deaths in Regina, advocates, police anxiously await opening of prevention site

In April, the Nēwo Yōtina Friendship Centre in Regina was approved to begin the process of opening a temporary overdose prevention site as part of an urgent public health needs site. The centre's executive director says an announcement will be made next week about when the site is set to open.

Nēwo Yōtina Friendship Centre will announce opening date for site next week

With the number of recent overdoses in Regina, Nēwo Yōtina Friendship Centre executive director Michael Parker says the overdose prevention site needs to open as soon as possible. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

With overdoses rising in Regina, advocates and police are anxiously awaiting the opening of a federally funded overdose prevention site in the city.

Elizabeth Popowich, a spokeswoman for the Regina Police Service, said that last Saturday, officers responded to calls at three different addresses. In each case, they found someone dead of an apparent drug overdose.

There was a similar occurrence Monday, Popowich said. The four people who died were all men — ages 26, 28, 45 and 55, she said.

According to a May 4 report by the Saskatchewan Coroners Service, 114 people in Regina died of drug toxicity in 2020. So far in 2021, 22 people in the city have died of drug overdoses, the report said.

"Obviously, we are anxious to see a harm reduction centre open," Popowich said. "It's a very complex thing. It has to be done and done well."

In April, the Nēwo Yōtina Friendship Centre in Regina was approved to begin the process of opening a temporary overdose prevention site as part of an urgent public health needs site.

Michael Parker, the centre's executive director, said an announcement will be made Tuesday about when the site is set to open.

With the number of recent overdoses in Regina, Parker said the site needs to open as soon as possible.

"It's an ongoing tragedy and needs to stop, and that's just more reason for us to have this started," he said. "Our piece in terms of harm reduction is only one part of that solution."

To have a long-term impact, though, "we're going to need more support than we're getting right now," he said.

The site has some federal money that will carry it over until its set September end date, but after that runs out, the site will have nothing.

"We've started to see some donations come in through the community, which is really fantastic and wonderful," he said.

"[But] it's not great. Every time I hear an ambulance I've got to wonder, 'Is that another overdose? Is that going to be somebody that we know or somebody that our staff knows?'"

The number of overdose deaths is Regina is continuing to "skyrocket," he said.

"And that is scary."

Reducing harm while waiting for site to open

The centre has begun handing out naloxone kits to people who request them, Parker said.

Popowich said all police members carry a naloxone kit with them in the form of a Narcan, a nasal spray. So far in 2021, they've administered the overdose treatment medication 12 times on a total of 116 calls.

She said the reason police haven't used naloxone more could be because emergency medical services personnel are typically on the scene with police right away, or someone who was with the person overdosing may have already administered naloxone.

She said people can do a bit of work to educate themselves on the signs of a drug overdose, which may include slow or no breathing, gurgling, gasping or snoring, clammy and cool skin, or blue lips or nails. 

Popowich said people should bear in mind that the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act protects people from being charged for drug possession if they call emergency services for help during an overdose — either for themselves or someone else.

"If someone is struggling with a substance use disorder, don't use alone," she said. "At least get a take-home naloxone kit and have someone else present that can watch you to make sure that you are safe."

Reducing stigma by reducing harm

Popowich said she hopes to see the site open to people stay safe, and help them work toward a healthier lifestyle.

"I think we've come a long way in terms of extending perhaps a bit of generosity in our thinking to people who are struggling every day with a substance use disorder," Popowich said.

"I think that there was a time when people thought, 'Well, you can just choose not to,' and we know that addiction doesn't give people choices."

Parker said it is important for residents of Regina to understand that the point of the site is to save lives, while also providing education and opportunities for people to get connected with other services.

There are many reasons people might use substances, Parker said, but one of the biggest problems they face when seeking help is the stigma associated with being a drug user.

The site is "meant to be non-judgmental and easy to access. We don't know why, and it doesn't matter to us why, people might use substances.… We're trying to remove that barrier to access help," he said.

"People are going to get help when they're ready. It's not up to me or anybody else to decide when that time is."