Saskatoon safe consumption site hires 1st medical staff member after community fundraising efforts
Site turned to community after government denied $1.3M in additional funding
A community fundraising effort has allowed Saskatoon's Prairie Harm Reduction to hire a full-time primary care paramedic. Tessa Park is the first medical staff member brought on for Saskatchewan's only supervised consumption site.
Money raised through fundraising and clothing sales will go toward Park's paycheques.
"One thing Saskatchewan is very good at is pulling together and getting the job done, whether we have government support or not," said Jason Mercredi, executive director with Prairie Harm Reduction.
Organizers had originally planned to have two paramedics operating 24 hours a day, year round, but the province declined a request for $1.3 million in March. The site is still slated to open in October, but with Park as the sole paramedic working during the week.
Mercredi said the site is needed now more than ever, as overdoses and fatalities are skyrocketing across the province. First responders have fielded an unprecedented number of overdose calls.
Mercredi said a supervised consumption site is meant to ease that work for first responders while ensuring safety for people who are going to use drugs.
"This overdose epidemic is getting crazy out of hand and we need some concrete actions to deal with it," Mercredi said.
He said Park was already administering Naloxone frequently and doing CPR on the organization's back step during her first week.
Mercredi said the community organization still needs the public's support. It has raised half of the $60,000 for the paramedic position and will now need to pull together the other half.
Saskatchewan's Minister of Health Jim Reiter said in July that the province needed to "do better with addictions services right across the board. Detox, addictions treatment beds, counselling, all the services around it." He was responding to news that six people had died of overdoses in Regina in 36 hours. He recently announced the provincial government will expand access to Naloxone.
Premier Scott Moe said earlier this month the province has been "investing heavily" in mental health and addictions. When asked about overdoses, he said the government has been "focusing on outcomes, we have been sharing best practices with other provinces and we will continue to do all of that as we wage what is ultimately a real battle across this nation."
Mercredi said growing overdose numbers show the government's current approach isn't working.
"To say that the approach is working and we're just going to double down on that approach is madness," he said.
Mercredi wants the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) to take leadership on the overdose crisis. However, he said health authority leaders have been reluctant to discuss or support it. The SHA did not respond to CBC's request for an interview by the time of publication.
Mercredi said the response to the overdose crisis has been reminiscent of how leaders responded to the AIDS epidemic in the '80s and '90s as droves of people got sick and died.
"The lack of action by governments and the double down of the approach and not wanting to use best evidence and best practice," he said. "It's history repeating itself."
Earlier in September, CBC asked the Ministry of Health to describe specific measures it has taken in response to rising overdose numbers this year. All of the measures described, excluding $500,000 for Naloxone kits, were included in the June provincial budget.The ministry said it has provided four pre-treatment and six post-treatment beds and 20 new inpatient beds for addictions in Estevan.
It said it will pay for 28 additional detox beds across the province. Mercredi acknowledged that more treatment beds are a good thing, but said that doesn't solve the problem.
"In order to have the people recover, we actually have to keep them alive."
with files from Alicia Bridges