Dr. Mike Benusic, new Island Health medical health officer for central Vancouver Island. (Twitter photo)

Opioid crisis and COVID-19 pressing issues for mid-Island’s new medical health officer

Dr. Mike Benusic has been working in his new role with Island Health since July 2

With central Vancouver Island in the midst of an opioid overdose crisis, the region’s new medical health officer says supervised consumption is a way to contain the epidemic.

Opioids, along with COVID-19, are the most pressing health issues in the area, Dr. Mike Benusic said, adding that sanctioned sites where drugs are administered under supervision of trained staff have “very strong base of evidence” of actually decreasing risk of someone dying from use of opioids, stimulants and other drugs.

“What we’re seeing right now is that people are using stimulants, for example, where they wouldn’t expect to have something like fentanyl, and they’re dying because of that,” Benusic said. “In an environment where they can be observed, where naloxone, the antidote to opioid poisoning, can be promptly administered … it’s definitely a necessary intervention.”

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Benusic said supervised consumption isn’t the only answer and a “whole fleet of other services” are needed. He said he is glad is those services are being offered at Nanaimo’s Canadian Mental Health Association site, which is providing the path to treatment. Providing “long-acting therapies” such as methadone and Suboxone mean people aren’t using injectables.

“It has to be with a whole fleet of other services, which I’m really glad that here at [Canadian Mental Health Association] at Wesley Street, they do have those services, and they’re being even increased, which is providing the path to treatment, providing methadone and Suboxone, so long-acting therapies so people aren’t using injectables,” said Benusic.

That also includes provision of mental health services, because a lot of substance use stems from that, said Benusic.

“Supervised consumption sites or overdose prevention sites are definitely an essential part of reducing the deaths from opioids, but they’re a part of that massive toolbox that we have, that we have to improve on…” Benusic said. “What we want everyone to know is that we can provide harm-reduction services – supervised consumption as well as long-acting therapies – in a very safe way. Those are essential services and people need to be coming to us for those services.”

The Nanaimo area has a reputation for high child poverty and Benusic said addressing the issue is essential as there are a lot of “down-stream effects,” for example nutrition.

“We see instances where people may not have good child upbringing where they can participate in the activities where other children can…” said Benusic. “The position I have is much more of an influencer, rather than a decision-maker and I think child poverty, of course, is one of those issues that’s not going to be immediately solved, but of course needs as much attention as we’re giving to other public health issues.”

Vancouver Island has seen 143 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic was declared, on the lower end of instances in the province’s health authorities. Benusic says that could be due to a number of reasons. It helps that Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, is a household name and people are more willing to abide from guidance from a trusted figure, he said.

“Being an Island probably is a bit advantageous and when I’m in Nanaimo, when I’m around the area, people are generally very respectful of the guidance that’s provided,” said Benusic. “I think there is also an element of luck and that’s why I think we shouldn’t rest on our laurels in that there’s a low incidence here.

“Most certainly, we’re not doing that within Island Health. We’re planning and preparing for a potential surge, so we’ll be able to respond and on that note, I think everyone within the city and the region can do the same by continuing to follow the guidance they now know like the back of their hand.”

Benusic came onboard with Island Health on July 2, allowing for overlap with predecessor Dr. Paul Hasselback.

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