Pop-up injection site could close when Ottawa Public Health site opens, says organizer

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  2. A pop-up injection site at Raphael Brunet Park says it plans to continue operating — at least until Ottawa Public Health can get its own temporary site up and running in the weeks ahead.

    Marilou Gagnon, an organizer with Overdose Protection Ottawa (OPO) and associate professor at the University of Ottawa, applauded OPH’s announcement on Tuesday to open its own satellite injection site on Clarence Street.

    Health officer Dr. Isra Levy said the opioid crisis has created an urgent need in the city to expand existing harm reduction services, including supervised injection sites.

    The temporary site would be in a health-unit building at 179 Clarence St. in the ByWard Market, and would be operated by the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre.

    Since the Sandy Hill centre has permission from Health Canada to run a permanent supervised injection site, it would manage the temporary one at the Clarence Street building, Levy said, provided Health Canada is OK with stretching its approval to cover the health unit’s premises.

    Sandy Hill’s own injection site will not be open until at least late October. Levy said the pop-up facility in the park has proven that there is a need for an officially licensed facility now.

    Gagnon said she is buoyed by OPH’s decision to open its own safe injection site, which would be similar to sites already operating in Toronto and Vancouver. Once the Clarence Street site is up and running, she said OPO would consider dismantling its pop-up facility.

    OPO opened its pop-up tent site — overnight without the appropriate permissions — almost three weeks ago in the Lowertown park. Since then, Gagnon said more than 575 people have attended the unsanctioned facility to inject drugs while being monitored by health care practitioners. The pop-up is open three hours a day.

    OPO aims to help cut back on deaths related to street drugs, like heroin, that have been laced with fentanyl and carfentanil. The difference between a “normal” dose of fentanyl and a deadly one is nearly indistinguishable.

    Documented emergency room visits for suspected opioid overdoses have been increasing steadily. However, community groups say there are increasing numbers of overdoses and opioid-related deaths that may not be seen by emergency departments, paramedics or police. In 2016, there were 40 opioid-related deaths in Ottawa, a number that has gone up every year for the past five years.

    The increasing number of drug users dying from tainted narcotics is why OPO felt compelled to open its pop-up safe injection site.

    While several politicians — including Mayor Jim Watson — have been critical of OPO’s decision to set up the tents without permission from the city, Ottawa Public Health has been supportive of the initiative. OPH has viewed the facility as a form of “peer support,” an extension of the health unit’s efforts to teach drug users how to look out for each other.

    Ottawa police have also steered clear of the unsanctioned site, even though illicit drugs can be found on the premises. Police referred the issue to city bylaw officers.

    Gagnon said volunteers running the pop-up facility have been in constant contact with OPH to share any information they have about the opioid epidemic.