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Overdose Prevention Site opens in Squamish

Site offers low-barrier care to keep locals alive through the ongoing opioid crisis.

The newly-opened Squamish harm-reduction site aims to stem the tide of Sea to Sky deaths due to cases of toxicity in the illicit drug supply.

Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) and Squamish Helping Hands, in partnership with the Sea to Sky Community AcCon Team (CAT), have opened an overdose prevention site (OPS) that is now open to the public at the former Helping Hands shelter on Third Avenue.

The temporary site is dedicated to late Squamish resident Sarah Jane Thompson, a vocal harm-reduction advocate who died in November 2020.

"The Overdose Prevention Site is dedicated to Sarah Jane Thompson, a dear friend, and fierce advocate who imagined a world full of hope and free from stigma. Thank you for all your hard work, Sarah. Your legacy lives on," reads a poster about the site.

“We are now in the sixth year of a significant and unyielding public health emergency. Squamish and other communities across our region continue to report record numbers of illegal drug overdose deaths. This new OPS will ensure people who are at risk of overdose in this community have access to low-barrier and lifesaving harm reduction services. Evidence tells us this model of care saves lives,” said Dr. Patricia Daly, VCH chief medical health officer, in a news release sent out Monday.

In 2020, 1,716  people died from illicit drug poisoning, according to BC’s Coroners Service.

In the North Shore/Coast Garibaldi region, which includes Squamish, 46 people died in 2020, whereas 26 died in our region in 2019.

The pandemic has led many to use alone, which increases the risk of dying if the supply is toxic.

No deaths have been reported at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites, according to the Coroners Service.

“As a community, we have an imperative to provide basic lifesaving programs and services to our most vulnerable citizens, and right now, because the drug supply is profoundly toxic, this includes anyone who uses drugs,” said Maureen Mackell, executive director of Squamish Helping Hands Society, in the release.

“This means even recreational users’ lives are at risk. For this reason, it is vital that people do not feel afraid to access harm reduction services in their community. This includes simply having their drugs checked for dangerous toxic additives to using in a supervised environment. There is no other solution to the housing crisis but housing. Likewise, there is no other solution to the overdose crisis than safe use.”

Staff from the health authority VCH will provide education, clinical support, and harm reduction supplies, while Helping Hands will manage the day-to-day operations of the OPS.

The site is open seven days a week from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. 

Two staff will be on hand at all times.

The site consists of booths for injecting, an outdoor, covered smoking tent, harm reduction supplies such as clean needles, pipes and the like as well as drug checking for fentanyl, which was detected in 84% of the drug deaths in 2020, according to the Coroners Service.

Users will be monitored by staff and local peers who have been trained to intervene if needed to save lives.  

Workers will also be able to facilitate access to addiction treatments and supports.

The service is funded by VCH as well as the Sea to Sky CAT, which includes members from municipal governments, Squamish Nation, first responders, frontline community agencies, experts, and residents and families with lived experience.

“Our friends and loved ones are dying from a poisoned drug supply,” said Jenna Becker, co-ordinator of the Sea to Sky CAT in the release. “The OPS is a pilot project aimed at supporting those in our community who need support. It’s about linking people with resources and supporting people to not use alone. It’s another way to raise awareness about the risks, a resource for those who are struggling with substance use. As a community, we need to embrace those who are suffering and support those at risk. Death is so final, and we have lost far too many people to the overdose crisis.”

For more information, go to Sea to Sky Community Action Team @SeaToSkyCAT on Facebook or contact jbecker@shhs.ca, or Lisa Young at lyoung@shhs.ca