Another step has been taken in tackling the opioid crisis in Oxford and Elgin counties. The board of health for Southwestern Public Health has voted unanimously in favor of moving forward with the second phase of developing supervised consumption sites in the region.
The next steps involve seeking out suitable locations for the sites, and reaching out to community partners.
“In all of our communities we’ve seen increases in opioid use and harm reduction needs, and I think all of our communities are saying ‘what steps should we take,’” said the board chair and St. Thomas Major Joe Preston.
A feasibility study by SWPH indicated preference for downtown areas of Woodstock and St. Thomas, but not necessarily on the main streets, rather on side streets.
Sam Mason, who owns dessert shop Ruby Blues on Talbot Street in downtown St. Thomas, said the prospect of such a site moving in close by makes her nervous.
“We’ve had loss of customers, we’ve had incidents where people have been assaulted, we’ve had property damage,” she said. “And really, I can’t see how the consumption site is actually going to improve anything down here at all.”
Consideration will also be given to establishing mobile sites which would provide access to those in the rural parts of the region.
Oxford Warden Marcus Ryan said it makes sense to provide services where they’re needed.
“People with addiction issues live everywhere,” he said. “People are complex, and they’re not just living in our downtown areas, they’re living on gravel roads as well, so I think we need to address those issues.”
According to the feasibility study, the local rate of opioid-related emergency department visits rose to 1.5 times the provincial rate in 2021, while the rate of hospitalizations was double the provincial rate in 2021.
The study also said the rate of opioid-related deaths increased quicker than emergency department visits and hospitalizations, more than doubling between 2019 and 2021, surpassing the provincial rate.
Opioid-related deaths rose to 21.9 per 100,000 population locally in 2021, compared to the provincial rate of 19.4 per 100,000 population in 2021.
One of the challenges of establishing supervised consumption sites is the resistance towards them. SWPH is undertaking an anti-stigma campaign to educate people about harm reduction.
Medical Officer of HealthDr. Ninh Tran said they have their work cut out in getting the public to listen.
“So we have to work together as a community to address the stigma, maybe some misconceptions,” he said.
“If we don’t get the details of why we’re looking at this, we’ll never get the solution,” added Preston. “The solution here is to communicate what’s going on in each of our municipalities, and move this forward as one of the solutions.”
Once service providers and locations are identified, public health will seek letters of support from local municipalities.