Ottawa

Somerset West health hub opening temporary outdoor supervised consumption site

Somerset West Community Health Centre says it's opening a temporary outdoor supervised injection site to compensate for the ongoing closure of its indoor facility.

Indoor site closed after staff reported feeling sick from heated drug fumes

A bunch of white tents and tables with neon yellow canisters on top.
Somerset West Community Health Centre is temporarily moving its supervised consumption site outdoors. Its indoor facility remains closed pending a provincial investigation into reports of staff feeling unwell. (Submitted by Somerset West Community Health Centre)

Somerset West Community Health Centre says it's opening a temporary outdoor supervised consumption site to compensate for the ongoing closure of its indoor facility.

More than two weeks ago, the supervised consumption sites at Somerset West and Sandy Hill community health centres suspended services after staff at both locations reported feeling unwell due to fumes released from heated drugs.

At the time, the executive director of the Somerset West location, Suzanne Obiorah, said the fumes caused staff to experience symptoms including nausea, dizziness and headaches. They've all since recovered, Obiorah said.

The indoor sites at Somerset West and Sandy Hill remain closed as the province investigates the issue.

A woman with black hair, a black sweater and a floral shirt looks into the camera.
Suzanne Obiorah, executive director of Somerset West Community Health Centre, said Health Canada approved an emergency exemption to open the outdoor supervised consumption site. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

On Friday, Obiorah said Health Canada granted Somerset West an emergency exemption to open a temporary outdoor supervised consumption site in an enclosed courtyard at the health centre.

"We are pleased to welcome our neighbours back to our centre to use their pre-obtained drugs under the supervision of medical staff," Obiorah said.

The outdoor service will remain in operation until the indoor site can be resumed, Obiorah added. 

By moving outdoors, staff and clients have more space — and more fresh air, Obiorah said.

"Our staff will continue to follow the protocols that are put in place to run our consumption and treatment service," she noted.

Obiorah did not give a timeline for when the indoor site may reopen, citing the ongoing investigation by the province.

The entrance to a community health centre in a city in late winter.
The Somerset West Community Health Centre has never before had staff report feeling sick while working in the safe consumption and treatment service, Obiorah said. (Sam Konnert/CBC)

No 'dramatic' change in overdoses

Outreach worker Dave McEvoy said the closure was upsetting for users. 

"We were asked every day, when is it going to be over? When is it going to be open?" he said. "Because these people rely on this to be able to use in a safe environment." 

Just one hour after Friday's reopening, McEvoy said the temporary site was half full, and he felt confident word would spread quickly throughout the community. 

When asked by reporters whether Somerset West has seen an increase in overdoses during the closure of the indoor site, Obiorah said the health centre has not seen "dramatic" changes or increases.

But McEvoy seemed confident the reopening is a life-saving event. 

"I know two people have died in the last two weeks who did use the site," he said. "I can't promise you they'd be alive, but [there's] a better change." 

McEvoy used heroin for 30 years and said he believes that if he had not quit before fentanyl came along, he wouldn't be here today. 

Man with grey hair and glasses stands in front of a brick building
Dave McEvoy works with the drug overdose prevention and education (DOPE) response team at the Somerset West Community Health Centre. (Elyse Skura/CBC News)

Ottawa Public Health has said it's conducting "enhanced surveillance" of overdoses and related trends for as long as there is reduced access to supervised consumption sites.

Furthermore, OPH is working with community partners to mitigate any increases in fatal or non-fatal overdoses.

In the five years Somerset West has been open, it has never received reports of staff becoming ill while working in the safe consumption and treatment area, Obiorah said.

Obiorah said she doesn't want to speculate about whether the incidents could be related to a potentially increasingly toxic drug supply.

She said Somerset West is most pleased about being able to resume its work outdoors and "once again contribute to Ottawa's capacity in providing this critical life-saving service."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Benjamin Lopez Steven is a reporter and part-time writer for CBC News Network. He's also a recent journalism graduate from Carleton University. You can reach him at benjamin.steven@cbc.ca or find him on Twitter at @bensteven_s.

With files from Elyse Skura