Interior Health is expanding its Downtown Primary Care Centre in Vernon to include an overdose prevention site, but the Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce said it’s “disappointed” in the site selection.
Following more than a year of debate and community engagement, IH announced Monday, May 11, that its 3306A-32nd Ave. location in Vernon would serve marginalized populations combating addictions.
Overdose prevention sites provide designated spaces to monitor people who use drugs and ensure that naloxone and other lifesaving first aid is available in the event of an overdose. Unlike supervised consumption (injection) sites, overdose prevention sites do not require an application for exemption from federal drug laws.
“On May 17, 2019, representatives from the chamber met with Interior Health to discuss an OPS (overdose prevention site) and the chamber was clear that it did not want such a facility in downtown Vernon and that has not changed one year later,” chamber president Krystin Kempton said.
“In fact, our members are still extremely concerned that an OPS in the downtown core will compound existing safety concerns and decrease property values,” she said.
The chamber president worries an OPS could increase drug use, loitering and perceptions that downtown isn’t safe.
“The appropriate location for an OPS is Vernon Jubilee Hospital,” Kempton said.
Interior Health selected its downtown location for the overdose prevention site after carefully examining the epidemiology and community feedback from a variety of stakeholders.
Interior Health’s community engagement processes uncovered primary concerns including hours of operation, safety and cleanliness among others, said director of Clinical Operations Colleen McEwan.
The expansion of Interior Health’s mental health and substance use services at the downtown location, which is already leased by the health authority, will see a full staff of 16 and two psychiatrists serve those in need between 9-3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Coun. Brian Quiring, who works nearby the OPS site, said he’d be most affected by the expansion, but he noted downtown is “probably the right location for it.”
Quiring wasn’t “delighted” about the decision, but the health-care facility has been providing care in the area for the past 12 years, primarily to marginalized populations, and he hasn’t noticed any real negative effects to his business.
“I’m confident you’re going to do a good job,” Quiring told McEwan. “I’m not worried.”
The hours of operation, McEwan said, were chosen as stakeholders worried evening or weekend hours could lead to issues such as loitering, crime or deter business.
The health authority will provide neighbouring businesses with a direct line to report issues that may arise and, as the project will not be run by a third-party contractor, the health authority will be in a better position to respond and mitigate any issues quickly, McEwan said.
A full staff of 16, Coun. Kari Gares said is reassuring, but she hopes to see Interior Health put specific policies in place to mitigate congregations of clients outside.
“It’s a concern not just for shoppers, but for businesses as well,” she said.
McEwan said Interior Health is working closely with bylaw and staff have been informed of what they are allowed to do under the law to resolve loitering issues.
The Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce penned a letter to Health Minister Adrian Dix and Interior Health Authority president Susan Brown on May 11, 2020, urging IH to have “immediate discussions with the City of Vernon and business organizations, including the chamber of commerce.”
“Among the issues to be addressed is how loitering will be handled to minimize the impact on businesses and their customers,” Kempton said. “This is of concern as the current COVID-19 pandemic may restrict how many people can be inside the facility at any one time.”
In her presentation to council, McEwan noted the COVID-19 pandemic will alter the way the OPS operates, and plans are underway to ensure the safety and well-being of clients, staff and members of the public while adhering to the Provincial Health Officer’s directives.
Coun. Kelly Fehr acknowledged the challenge of handling two health emergencies simultaneously, the novel coronavirus and the opioid crisis.
“One requires isolation and one where you’re trying not to have people isolated,” he said, noting there has been an increase in overdoses since COVID-19 was declared a provincial state of emergency in March.
“It’s unfortunate it has taken so long,” Fehr said, regarding the delay in opening the OPS, “but it’s an important piece… I do believe OPS is part of the solution. I am happy Interior Health is spearheading and running it.”
This prevention site falls under the public health emergency “umbrella,” McEwan said, and if the province were to lift the emergency declaration of the opioid crisis, IH would re-evaluate this location.
Interior Health said it will hold an open house in the future as COVID-19 restrictions ease.
Meanwhile, chamber president Kempton said in her letter to the health minister that IH “needs to come back to the table.”