'Bodies would pile up' if Ontario cuts funding to overdose prevention sites, nurse warns

A Toronto registered nurse whose brother died of an overdose in an alley says "the bodies would pile up" if the Ontario government decides to cut funding to overdose prevention sites in the province after it conducts a review.

Health Minister Christine Elliott says province to review sites based on their 'merit'

The new indoor space of the Moss Park Overdose Prevention Site in Toronto. The site was outside for more than 10 months, from August 12, 2017 until July 2, 2018, when it moved indoors. (Zoe Dodd)

A Toronto registered nurse whose brother died of an overdose in an alley says "the bodies would pile up" if the Ontario government decides to cut funding to overdose prevention sites in the province after it conducts a review.

"We've seen thousands of people," Leigh Chapman, a founder of the Moss Park Overdose Prevention site, told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Wednesday. 

"I can't imagine the devastation that will occur if these sites are not allowed to stay open."

Chapman, also an organizer of the Toronto Overdose Prevention Society, said a decision to review the sites is "shocking" because evidence in scientific literature already exists that the sites prevent overdose deaths. Chapman said the Moss Park site alone has reversed more than 250 overdoses.

"It's troubling. I think the evidence is very compelling for these sites, from not only within Canada but across the world. They're saving lives." 

Leigh Chapman lost her brother to an overdose nearly three years ago. The registered nurse volunteers at Toronto's Moss Park overdose prevention site. (Kourosh Keshiri)

Chapman said the sites provide many "vital" services: supervision of injections, reversal of overdoses, wound care and referrals to other health services. They help people ostracized in society, including the homeless, those convicted of crimes, people dealing with adversity and those living precariously, she said.

"These sites provide a vital connection and touch-point for people who desperately need it. Sometimes, that alone is life-saving."

Her brother, Brad Chapman, 43, died of a suspected fentanyl overdose downtown nearly three years ago. He had three children and a grandson, she added. 

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said Tuesday that the government will review overdose prevention sites to determine if the sites have "merit." Elliott said in question period at the Legislature on Wednesday that the government is planning to do a review of the sites because of an election promise.

"Our government is committed to fighting the ongoing opioid crisis and getting people with addictions the help that they absolutely need. We are listening to the people. We are listening to the experts on the evidence available with respect to supervised injection sites," she said. 

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott says the provincial government will review overdose prevention sites to determine if they have 'merit.' (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Provincial officials will consult several organizations, including the Canadian Mental Health Association, to obtain statistics, she added.

"That's what we promised the people of Ontario we would do to make sure that each and every program that we provide is of benefit to the public."

In an election debate sponsored by CityTV, Doug Ford said during the campaign he talked to several people whose family members have addictions. "And they're telling me they don't want an area that they can do more drugs, what they need is rehabilitation programs."

Chapman said some people who use the overdose prevention sites "won't be alive long enough" to take advantage of the rehabilitation services, if the sites are shut down.

"You can't treat people if they're dead," she said. 

Overdose prevention sites are temporary facilities approved by the province to address an immediate need in a community, while supervised injection sites — also known as safe consumption sites — are more permanent locations approved by the federal government after a more extensive application process.

An example of an injection kit shown at a supervised injection site. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Chapman said the society wants the provincial and federal governments to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency, and along with Toronto Public Health, it is calling for decriminalization of drugs.

"I don't think we can just say that treatment is the solution. For many people, they will continue using. And they need to be able to continue using in a safe manner."

Speaking to media on Wednesday, Mayor John Tory expressed support for overdose prevention sites, but said he won't be calling on the provincial government to skip the review. He also believes the review will prove that they "should exist."

"They'll make their own decisions on that regard," he said. "I believe that any review on merit, and any review that takes into account research and facts, will show that these safe injection sites [and] supervised injection sites save lives," he said.

"I don't think it's a worthy expenditure of my time and energy to try and stop them from having a review, which may well produce some recommendations that are beneficial to the better functioning of those sites."

Four agencies provide supervised injection services in Toronto that are federally approved but provincially funded. In addition to these, there are four overdose prevention sites in the city that are provincially approved and funded. 

The Moss Park Overdose Prevention site began in a tent. (Carly Thomas/CBC)

With files from Metro Morning, Lauren Pelley, The Canadian Press