By Breanne Massey
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Within the East Kootenay and Kootenay-Boundary regions of southeastern B.C., there are 21 recognized harm reduction sites and a total of 95 Take Home Naloxone Kit sites.
The Shuswap Indian Band’s (SIB) health unit received approval to become a safer sex and drug use supplies distribution centre as a designated harm reduction site through the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) for the District of Invermere (DOI) in 2018.
The SIB has continued to maintain the credentials to offer the program to Indigenous communities, as well as to provide support for individuals from all nations in the Columbia Valley community, for safer sex and drug use supplies through a regional partnership with the Interior Health Authority (IHA) and the First Nations Health Authority (FNHA).
The goal of the safer sex program is to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STI) caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites that can be transmitted to another person during sex or intimate contact through raising awareness with education and supplies.
The harm reduction aspects of the program aims to raise awareness about safe usage of drug use supplies and addictions through a science-based approach in an effort to reduce the risk of opioid overdoses in the Kootenays as well as within the province.
During the month of December 2020, the SIB reported a surge in requests for Take Home Naloxone Kits in the Columbia Valley with a total of 13 kits being distributed over the holidays as opposed to its usual requests from the community for about eight kits.
“On average, we hand out six-to-eight kits per month,” said Danielle Armstrong, SIB health director. “In December, we saw a big increase. Around 13. It was a little bit higher because we had family members coming in from out of town.”
As a result of the uptick, here are some resources about the supplies available and what you can expect to learn about the harm reduction site offered at SIB’s health unit.
Take Home Naloxone Kits
With the mixtures of fentanyl and benzodiazepines becoming increasingly common due to travel restrictions, the continued risks of opioid overdoses from toxic drug supplies have encompassed communities throughout the province.
The SIB has joined forces with IHA and the FNHA to provide Take Home Naloxone Kits and training for life-saving training for anyone interested in recognizing the symptoms of an opioid overdose and responding to emergencies for those at-risk.
“Naloxone is a medication that reduces an opioid overdose,” said Jennifer Driscoll, Interior Health Authority regional harm reduction coordinator located in the Kimberley Health Centre. “The drug supply is increasingly toxic, so just as an example today (Jan. 8, 2020), we just put out five or six drug overdose alerts because of drug checking services had picked up (mixtures of fentanyl and benzodiazepines), which means the risk of an overdose are much higher… we’re really pushing the message of staying with the person (for a buddy system).”
The main goal of the Take Home Naloxone Kit program is to reduce opioid overdoses and to encourage behavioural changes in consumption of illicit substances.
First Nations have the opportunity to access nasal response kits through the FNHA since 2018. However, the BCCDC Take Home Naloxone Kit program began in 2012 in an effort to mitigate the risks of a toxic drug supply fuelling an overdose epidemic in B.C. communities.
Driscoll added that 145 kits were shipped to the Windermere health services area in 2020.
Armstrong added that individuals with a status card could access free kits from any pharmacy, including at Pharmasave or Lambert-Kipp Pharmacy.
In addition, the East Kootenay Addiction Services and the SIB provide nasal and needle kits at no-cost.
The Aboriginal Response Working Group through IHA, which is composed of Indigenous stakeholders from across the region, have recently developed a label that’s fixed onto the kits with a statement to let people know that they’re not alone with a 1-800-number to get help for mental health and substance use resources.
Needles kits come with three doses of naloxone as opposed to nasal kits which contain two doses.
“The kits are great,” said Armstrong. “They’re set up just beautifully. There’s new gloves, new needles, there’s instructions in each kit and anybody can administer them. If you can read and follow the instructions, it’s good to go.”
The SIB’s safer sex and harm reduction site is open between 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. mountain time from Monday to Friday each week. Those interested in picking up supplies may visit the back door of the SIB health unit during operational hours and knock for supplies, or for the needle exchange collection service.
“It’s also really important to know that all Interior Health centres accept used sharps,” said Driscoll.
Armstrong added, “You can exchange old needles for new needles, or you can get it without the exchange too. We try to keep 40 (kits) on hand at any given time.”
Fentanyl Test Strips
It’s essential to check unregulated drug supplies for fentanyl to encourage users to make informed decisions. Armstrong stocks and distributes Fentanyl Test Strips from the SIB Health Centre, with Driscoll’s support for others within the Kootenay regions, while offering 1-1 private training about how to use the safety program effectively.
“Even if it shows up as negative, it does not mean fentanyl is not present,” said Driscoll, noting that Fentanyl Test Strips will not give users information about quantity or quality in their test group.
In fact, Driscoll explained some fentanyl analogs cannot be detected with test strips.
“They will detect if fentanyl but they can’t detect all fentanyl analogs, so even if it tests negative, it doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t have fentanyl in it,” clarified Driscoll.
Armstrong added there had been at least three individuals who have returned to the SIB health centre with stories about positive Fentanyl Test Strips where users opted out of using their stashes and changing their behaviour in an effort to stay safe.
“I’ve had three different people come back saying the strips have detected fentanyl in them and they chose not to use those drugs,” said Armstrong. “They were very grateful to have those strips and make an informed choice.”
The duo encourages users to use the buddy system, to download the Lifeguard App on your phone and to test drive your substances gradually to minimize the risks of drug use.
In order to find a harm reduction site in B.C. if you’re travelling, please visit Toward the Heart to search for centres closest to you at: towardtheheart.com/site-finder and be mindful of the hours of operations amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
To learn more about the safer sex program, please visit the Smart Sex Resource at: smartsexresource.com/ for details.