In an effort to ensure safe substance use and to save lives, AIDS Vancouver Island’s Harm Reduction and Overdose Response Team has hit the Comox Valley streets.
The unique service has been operating for about a month as part of a six-month pilot project funded by the Opioid Emergency Response Centre.
Though AVI offers harm reduction supplies and has its own safe injection site, the stigma surrounding drug use, as well as physical limitations, may prevent people from accessing these services at the downtown location. That’s where the two-person mobile team comes in.
Galen Rigter and Frank Osawamick are the outreach workers behind the response team and are out in the community Wednesday to Friday spreading the word about the service and coming to the aid of those who need it. People need only call a number and the response team will discreetly come to them.
“We’ll physically go to their home or trailer or in a tent or at a park. If they feel that they’re at risk, we’ll sit with them while they use and monitor them in case of an overdose,” said Rigter.
Rigter and Osawamick are both trained in overdose response and carry naloxone and oxygen to immediately reverse an overdose. They will also provide harm reduction supplies such as clean syringes, cookers or tourniquets to reduce the risk of contracting diseases.
Nearly 80 per cent of overdose deaths in British Columbia happen in private residences and Rigter says the majority are middle-aged men who are using alone.
“We feel that’s completely preventable and it’s mainly due to the stigma of using drugs. They’re doing it in secret, they’re doing it in private and if you’re alone and something goes wrong, you can’t really help yourself,” he said.
The response team also carries fentanyl testing kits which they can use to determine if a person’s drugs contain the opioid. Rigter says it is important that people are educated about the presence of fentanyl and that they take precautions such as only taking half a dose.
“These days with the fentanyl crisis that we’re all going through, you can be very certain that whatever drugs you are purchasing do contain fentanyl,” said Rigter. “It’s just where we are these days. And all it can take is that one time where the dose is higher than your body can handle and it can happen very very quickly.”
He adds that the response team is not trying to change people’s lifestyles, but rather promote safe practices.
“We’re not telling people you need to get sober, we’re not telling people you need to change how you live your life, we’re just offering the safest way possible for people to go about living their life with the least risk of contracting diseases and just being safe,” said Rigter.
Both Rigter and Osawamick came to the project with years of outreach and harm reduction experience under their belts. Rigter previously spent 16 years in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside running a harm reduction distribution centre that included a bicycle response team.
Osawamick has been doing outreach work for over 20 years, which was his way of giving back after he became sober himself.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’m in recovery myself, so this is kind of my way of giving back,” said Osawamick. “When I see somebody out there struggling, I can be there for them.
“Even though they may not be wanting to come in for recovery, it’s just that first contact that’s treating them in a dignified, respectful manner so that when they do decide [they need help], we’re going to be one of the first ones they come to.”
Rigter adds, “Frank has a really great sense of humour and I think that because he’s somebody with lived experience, there’s a real trust element to when we meet people in the street.”
The unit has seen success since it began operating in late November and Rigter and Osawamick are continuing to work to get the word out.
Campbell River also has a similar service which has also been gaining traction.
Sarah Sullivan, manager of AVI’s Courtenay and Campbell River offices, says the services are meeting a need in both communities.
“They are getting quite a few calls now and doing a lot of deliveries and a lot of overdose prevention training and it seems to be something that the community’s really looking for, especially after our fixed location is closed at 4 p.m.,” she said.
“We are in an opioid poisoning crisis and people are dying at a horrific rate and so we want to be able to offer support and education to people who may not be able to come to our location so that we can prevent even one more death.”
The mobile response team’s hours are Wednesday and Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. The team can be reached at 250-207-3757.