There were nine toxic drug deaths in the Cariboo-Chilcotin in 2021, followed by an “alarming” amount more in 2022, an Interior Health Authority (IH) delegation told Williams Lake city council during its regular meeting Tuesday, April 26.
As a result of the 2022 overdoses, IH pulled a team together that has been meeting weekly to strategize and implement a response with the aim to keep people alive, said regional harm reduction co-ordinator Alison Houwelling.
Medical health officer Dr. Carol Fenton, and Katie Matuschewski were also part of the delegation who met with council.
Houwelling said a prescriber nurse has increased her outreach work and is partnering with an existing harm reduction worker in Williams Lake.
Supports have increased to the community action team (CAT) which consists of community, health authority, government and non-government members who meet monthly to discuss and plan strategies.
“Currently this group is forming an outreach team with lived experience to distribute Naloxone kits and harm reduction supplies in the evenings and on weekends,” Houweling said.
Street drugs are also being tested through the federal urgent drug testing service which involves people submitting samples to be tested.
A sampling done in April resulted in a toxic drug warning being issued on April 10.
READ MORE: Toxic drug alert issued for Williams Lake
Fenton said supervised consumption sites are a way to prevent deaths and many people are dying from smoking toxic drugs.
The goal is not necessarily to get people off drugs, but to stabilize them so they are able to function, feel good in their body and no longer have a disorder, she added.
“A lot of times we find abstinence-based programs make people more susceptible to overdose because they become then physiologically naive but they have not stabilized the reasons they use which are mental and physical pain or lack of connection.”
In Williams Lake, there are services for substance use counselling both in a group and for individuals, crisis response, intensive case management for mental health and substance use and facility withdrawal management.
There is a nurse prescriber for opioid agonist treatment, 24/7 specific opioid agonist threapy treatment at the hospital and community crisis response nurse outreach.
Renner House continues to offer facility withdrawal management and the Boys and Girls Club does blood born illness harm reduction.
Local politicians can help remove the stigma of substance use, Fenton told council.
“We can reduce stigma when we understand why people use drugs,” Fenton said.
Howeling added stigma is a key barrier to people reaching out for help and why many people use and die alone.
Coun. Scott Nelson asked if there is a local treatment centre and Matuschewski responded that residential treatment programs do not exist in Williams Lake.
“We have a five-bed detox centre, which is Renner House. Detox is the first step in order to enter a treatment program,” she said adding there is also the after-treatment support program offered at Esket First Nation.
Coun. Craig Smith, who works with a local First Nation, said there are gaps in supports for people when they return from treatment to communities outside of Williams Lake.
When Coun. Jason Ryll asked how the stigma of safe consumption sites can be removed, Fenton said it is important to have the conversation about what does drug use actually look like.
“What are the risks to individuals in the communities versus the stereotypes? It’s really a gradual process about changing hearts and minds to get people to support each other.”
City council has the platform to help remove the stigma, she added.