As of March 31, AIDS Vancouver Island in Courtenay will no longer offer its overdose prevention service (OPS) because it lost its contract.
The service began to operate in Courtenay in March 2017. Since then, AVI says the number of clients accessing harm reduction services has more than doubled. AVI has been told by Island Health that ‘other plans will be made.’
“Our service operated, I think, quite well for the past three years in the community, and we’re certainly feeling discouraged about the decision,” AVI Courtenay acting manager Ashley Hancock said. “And very concerned for the welfare of people that access that service.”
She acknowledges the number of visits has been lower than other communities, but the number of overdoses seen in the Courtenay office has been higher than similar-sized communities.
“Over the last four weeks, we’ve had four overdoses,” Hancock said. “We’ve now responded to 47 overdoses (since March 2017).”
Due to the impending OPS closure, the Sixth Street office will no longer be offering overdose prevention or witness injection services. It will be open five days a week with reduced hours on Fridays.
“But we will continue during that time to offer harm reduction supply distribution and collection,” Hancock said.
She notes AVI Courtenay continues to work with Island Health to conduct transition planning for clients, and to refer clients to access Mental Health and Substance Use services.
While its contract with AVI Courtenay for the provision of OPS ends March 31, Island Health said it is committed to providing overdose prevention services in the Comox Valley.
“We continue to define options for the provision of those services beyond March 31,” Island Health said in a statement. “Overdose prevention services are part of a broad overdose response strategy that includes education, intervention and prevention services, rehabilitation and recovery services, harm reduction, naloxone kits, counseling, supports and access to mental health services.”
“It’s not being cut from the community forever, it’s trying to get the best fit for our community so that it benefits more people,” Courtenay-Comox MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard said in an interview. “The challenge is there to do the best that we can for people in need of this kind of service. I’m hopeful that it will grow out in a way that it helps more people.”
Leonard notes that recent statistics indicate a decrease in the number of British Columbians who have not survived an overdose.
“I think that’s a tribute to our program to increase access to the naloxone kit, for instance, and putting more funds and focus on the whole issue of substance use and the challenges that people face,” she said.
In a 2018 bulletin on the Island Health website, Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Richard Stanwick says overdose prevention services are one of many tools used to tackle the opioid crisis.
“It’s not just about people using drugs, and the safety around that,” Hancock said of OPS. “It’s part of a continuum of substance use support. It’s an important place where people feel safe and dignified in what they’re doing. We can capitalize on that moment and make referrals to other substance use supports, if and when they’re ready…It’s connecting people to a broader range of supports.”