There may be as many as 2,100 people who inject illicit drugs in the Cowichan Valley, according to Dr. Shannon Waters.
Waters, the medical health officer for the Cowichan Valley region, said some recent studies indicate there are approximately 700 people who inject drugs in the Valley, but health officials believe the number is two to three times larger than that.
Waters said those large numbers are reflected at the Valley’s Overdose Prevention Site on Trunk Road in Duncan.
“The OPS revealed a need that we didn’t know existed in the Valley,” she said. “The site was not very busy when it first opened in 2017, but word-of-mouth got out, and now it has had more than 54,000 visits to date. We have identified 510 ‘unique’ clients who, together, average about 2,600 visits a month.”
Waters said there has been an average of 5.6 overdoses per 1,000 visits at Trunk Road’s OPS, but there have been no overdose deaths to date at the site, or at the other sites around Vancouver Island.
“All of these overdoses could have ended up in death, but it’s significant that we’ve been able to prevent deaths at all the sites since they opened,” she said.
“Statistics also indicate that the OPS has lessened the number of overdose victims that end up in the emergency department at the Cowichan District Hospital. In 2017, the hospital had 151 overdose visits, and that went down to 94 in 2018 and 103 in 2019.”
But Waters said drug use still has a stigma attached to it, and a lot of users still choose to inject themselves at home, out of the eye of the public, and that’s where most of the overdose deaths occur.
She said sometimes, someone’s death is the first time other members of the household even know the person used drugs.
Waters said a number of other OPS sites on the Island are not as busy as the Valley’s, and Island Health is determining their future.
“Every community is different, and we have concentrations of people here that they don’t have in some other, more rural, parts of the Island,” she said.
“The populations are more dispersed is many of these other areas so it’s not feasible for some people to walk to their local OPS. There’s also a model here in which the OPS staff make people feel welcome and human. That’s not to say that the clients are not happy at the other sites, but it’s a varied picture across the Island.”
Waters said the opioid crisis is still ongoing, and the challenge continues to be how to get the communities around the OPS sites to see them as part of a larger service to the community to deal with it.
“We need to ensure we can set up the wrap-around services in each community, including mental heath programs and drug-supply pilot programs, and we want the communities to understand that we’re all in this together in dealing with the opioid crisis,” she said.
Despite the need, the search for a new home for the Overdose Prevention Site has not been successful to date.
Neighbours have complained of thefts and trespass on their properties, overnight vagrancy, loitering, trash and needle littering, and loud and lewd aggressive behaviour on the streets related to the site.
Island Health acknowledged in October when it announced that it was looking for a new site that the current location on Trunk Road does not meet community or client needs in the most effective way. It issued a Request for Proposals for a new location in the Cowichan Valley in October.
“In consultation with local stakeholders, Island Health continues to seek a new location and service model to better meet the needs of those who use substances in the Cowichan Valley, and mitigate community impacts,” the release said.
“We continue to explore new locations for an improved service model which includes stronger connections to services and supports, such as treatment.”
The site lease runs out in July.