A professor of public health says the Alberta government’s decision to close down a safe injection site in Calgary is short-sighted and sad.
Elaine Hyshka says Alberta’s move to close the Safeworks site in Calgary’s Beltline neighbourhood is similar to closing an emergency room at the height of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“To propose to reorganize them, relocate them, defund them or move them in the midst of the worst drug poisoning we’ve had in Alberta is illogical,” said Hyshka, who teaches at the University of Alberta.
“People who are accessing services take a long time to build trust with the health-care providers that work within the four walls. Closing the service, even if there are other services opened elsewhere in the city, will not just seamlessly result in a transition of care over to a new operator.”
A spokesman for the minister of mental health and addictions said in a statement that the government decided to close the contentious supervised drug consumption site, which also provides counselling and opioid-dependency treatment, because it was causing social disorder and crime.
“What’s more, we have repeatedly heard firsthand of the very negative effects from those who live and work in the Beltline neighborhood,” said Justin Marshall.
He added that the site won’t close until two others are operational in more appropriate locations “much closer to those who need such services” in the city.
But Hyshka, who’s also the scientific director of the Inner City Health and Wellness Program in Alberta, said crime is just an excuse.
“I think the vast majority of complaints related to disorder that may be present in that area are related to the fact that people have nowhere to go, and they’re living and spending time on the street,” she said.
“It is not the service that causes those issues. It’s the fact that the city and the province have failed to invest in permanent supportive housing to support people with complex medical needs to stay housed and to stay safe.”
Hyshka said the government should keep the site open, along with the two new ones, because there have been record-breaking opioid overdoses in Alberta.
“More people died of overdose last year in 2020 in Alberta than of COVID-19 and yet we see the overdose emergency response completely stall.”
A federal report last December noted there were 1,628 apparent opioid toxicity deaths between April and June 2020 when the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It was the highest quarterly count since national surveillance began in 2016.
It also said Western Canada was the hardest hit.
In Alberta, provincial government data shows opioid-related deaths more than doubled to 1,144 in 2020, up from 521 in 2019.
“Governments invest money in their priorities, and we have not seen any new investments beyond overdose prevention, and a new dashboard that displays overdose deaths since 2019,” said Hyshka.
“I talk to families every day that have lost people that they love to overdose, and (they) just feel a lack of attention and a lack of compassion for this population.
“It’s very, very hard.”
Marshall said the UCP government hopes to “have more to say in the future” about the injection sites.
“And yes, funding will be involved,” he added.
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