The Northwestern Health Unit is looking into the possibility of creating safe injection sites across the region to help prevent opioid-related overdose deaths and the spread of infectious disease within our communities, as well as to increase access to social supports and treatments for individuals in need.

“Supervised Consumption Services are a service where a person can use a substance, for example can inject drugs, in the presence of someone else who can be there in case they overdose,” explains Gillian Lunny, Manager of Sexual Health and Harm Reduction at the Northwestern Health Unit.

“The primary goal of these sites is to prevent overdose deaths, which is really important in our area – especially over the last few years during COVID where the number of people dying of opioid overdoses has really increased. These are a key way to help keep people alive.”

Lunny explains that in 2020, the Ontario government reported a total of 17 opioid deaths in northwestern Ontario, which based on early data, almost doubled to 32 deaths by the end of 2021.

To help fight back against increasing rates of opioid-related deaths in the area, the NWHU and a third-party consultant are leading a feasibility study to determine the usefulness of safe injection sites in Kenora, Dryden, Sioux Lookout and Fort Frances. Public surveys can be expected over the summer with a final report on the study by mid-September.

“The study will help us determine the demand for these services to determine the extent to which they would be helpful in our communities,” adds Lunny. “They also help us collect data from the broader community to find out what people think that the benefits might be, and any concerns the community might have.”

Canada’s first Safe Injection Site launched in Vancouver in 2003 as a divisive pilot project. The facility has supervised nearly 4 million injections and responded to over 6,000 overdoses, but no deaths have ever been recorded within the facility. Studies have also shown the site has decreased overdose rates within the East Vancouver area.

Now, there are roughly 40 government-authorized Safe Consumption Services sites in Canada. An exemption to the Controlled Substances Act is granted within the facility, but drug possession remains illegal outside of the site.

A 2014 study found that safe injection sites were found to reduce overdose deaths, increase access to health services, lead to a decrease in outdoor drug use and did not appear to have any negative impacts on rates of crime or drug use in their communities.

“There are some secondary benefits,” notes Lunny. “These sites have also shown to increase entry into other services, like housing, treatment services, mental health and addictions, counselling and more. They’ve also shown to reduce improperly discarded needles in the community.”

Discarded needles in the Kenora community continue to be a hot-button issue. Lunny notes no sites for any potential safe injection sites have been narrowed down yet, but the development of a site may help to address ongoing discarded needle concerns in Kenora’s downtown core and surrounding areas.

The Northwestern Health Unit’s Needle Distribution program provides sterile and clean equipment to people who use drugs to help decrease the spread of blood-borne infections like HIV and hepatitis in our communities, and as Lunny explains, works as another form of harm reduction for the area.

“We know with infections like HIV, we know that the infection can be spread through a few different ways. Injection drug use being one of them, but also through sexual activity,” explains Lunny.

“An infection like HIV among the injection drug-using’s an infectious disease. We benefit as an entire community and society in any way through Public Health that we can prevent the spread of infectious disease. The needle distribution program has shown for decades, globally, to be a very key factor in helping to prevent the spread of infectious disease among people who inject drugs.”

Lunny notes the Northwestern Health Unit and Public Health Ontario have been studying needle exchange programs since the 1990s when the programs were first introduced in Canada and in the Kenora area. The program is mandated to be deployed in every community by Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.

“We’re always open to ideas and changes to the program based on different trends or changes, but the program has be based in evidence. Harm reduction programs like the needle distribution program, they’re one of the most researched areas of Public Health, globally. The evidence has been really clear.”

“The program works in preventing the spread of infectious disease. We follow that evidence. We follow the mandate given to us by the province and national best practice documents on how a needle distribution program should be run,” Lunny adds.

In saying that, however, the NWHU is altering the program again this summer, slightly.

Through a renewed partnership with Elevate NWO based out of Thunder Bay, NWHU staff are bringing back an incentive program for clients to clean up discarded needles in the downtown core over the summer months, who will be rewarded with a gift card from a local business. The program was created last summer to help keep Kenora’s downtown core as safe as possible.

“We’re providing small incentives to clients downtown to help us pick up improperly discarded needles, primarily in the downtown core, but with some extensions into areas where we hear there might be issues. We know that the spring and the summer are times of concern for downtown, residents and for businesses. This is a key initiative that we’re really glad to provide again.”

Lunny reminds residents that the health unit is more than willing to provide Harm Reduction Kits to organizations, workplaces and the public to help support the safe disposal of needles and to minimize the risk of infections. The program can also provide workplace presentations.

The health unit notes they also track any calls regarding used needles and will record any information regarding where the needles were found, how many were found, if they were used and if they were capped or not.

If residents do have to pick up a used needle themselves, the NWHU says residents should:

- If possible, use gloves and tongs to pick up the needle,
- Never put the cap back on a needle,
- Place the needle in a hard-sided plastic container, point-end first, seal and label “Needle”,
- Wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer after picking up a needle,
- Return the needle to your local NWHU office,
- Never put needles down the toilet, in drains or in the garbage,
- Call your local NWHU office to pick up needles safely if you cannot.

If the worst happens and a used needle does puncture your skin, residents are asked to:

- Let the wound bleed,
- Wash the wound out with soap and water,
- Go to the emergency department immediately,
- If a needle stick injury occurred at work, report the injury to your employer.

The NWHU adds the risk of contracting a blood-borne illness from a discarded needle hovers around the one per cent range.