‘We’re try­ing to save lives’

Ad­vo­cate sees a role for public health nurses in fight­ing opi­oid cri­sis in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties

The Aurora (Labrador City) - - CLASSIFIED - BY VIC­TO­RIA PLOUGH­MAN

The opi­oid cri­sis in St. John’s is far from over, and a com­mu­nity ad­vo­cate wants to see changes.

“We see peo­ple ev­ery day who are at risk,” said Tree Walsh, the harm re­duc­tion man­ager at the Safe Works Ac­cess Pro­gram (SWAP) for the AIDS Com­mit­tee of New­found­land and Labrador. “We’re try­ing to save lives, and we’re try­ing to pre­vent deaths, but as soon as the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal sup­ply of opi­oids dries up, which is hap­pen­ing now … things are go­ing to get so much worse.”

Since 2005, SWAP has been dis­tribut­ing safer drug us­ing equip­ment and ser­vices to St. John’s and area, in­clud­ing clean nee­dles, nee­dle dis­posal, safe in­jec­tion in­for­ma­tion, cook­ers and more.

The pro­gram ex­panded to Cor­ner Brook in 2010, and is widely known for its ser­vices to smaller com­mu­ni­ties through­out the prov­ince. Both groups have a van that al­lows them to travel and of­fer out­reach to users in need, and they of­ten send sup­plies through the mail to com­mu­ni­ties that nor­mally wouldn’t have ac­cess to them.

“We’d like to see the gov­ern­ment maybe even man­date public health, in the small­est com­mu­ni­ties,” Walsh said. “Peo­ple go to the public health nurse and there’s no stigma at­tached, no judg­ment … so why can’t the public health nurse dis­trib­ute safer us­ing equip­ment, you know? The net­work al­ready ex­ists. The peo­ple who use the nee­dles are al­ready liv­ing in these com­mu­ni­ties; why not make it that ac­ces­si­ble?

“Peo­ple come in from all over, to St. John’s or to Cor­ner Brook, to pick up equip­ment for friends at home, so it’s ob­vi­ously needed in ev­ery com­mu­nity.”

Walsh said it’s hard to get in­for­ma­tion from of­fi­cial chan­nels as to ex­actly how many opi­oidrelated over­doses there have been. She said she wrote the De­part­ment of Health re­cently in search of an ac­cu­rate num­ber, but hasn’t had a re­sponse yet.

Anec­do­tally, Walsh said there’s been a re­cent num­ber of over­dose deaths among co­caine users, and she doesn’t think the sit­u­a­tion will im­prove any­time soon with­out changes im­ple­mented.

“They have a false sense of se­cu­rity be­cause they’re not do­ing opi­oids, but ev­ery­thing is laced now … ev­ery­thing,” Walsh said.

She said she be­lieves a big part of the opi­oid prob­lem in St. John’s is the fact peo­ple don’t know how to in­ject them­selves prop­erly.

“Physi­cians are try­ing to help peo­ple stop us­ing so that they can save their heart, but the heart prob­lems within users is caused by in­cor­rect in­jec­tion, so what nurses need to do is teach them to in­ject cor­rectly,” Walsh told The Tele­gram.

In hon­our of the In­ter­na­tional Over­dose Aware­ness Day, SWAP held a com­mu­nity event at Ban­ner­man Park in St. John’s, with free Nalox­one train­ing kit dis­tri­bu­tion and in­for­ma­tion pro­vided by com­mu­nity agen­cies.

“We need to not only raise aware­ness, but also to brain­storm. We need safe in­jec­tion sites, and we def­i­nitely need ac­cess to new us­ing equip­ment right across the prov­ince,” Walsh said.

Pairs of shoes were also placed through­out the park, rep­re­sent­ing those who have lost their lives through over­dose, those af­fected by it and those still strug­gling with ad­dic­tions. Com­mu­nity mem­bers also pur­chased fen­tanyl-test­ing strips and sold them for a dol­lar each at the event — some­thing Walsh thinks the gov­ern­ment should be re­spon­si­ble for dis­tribut­ing.

“The last num­ber of deaths have been coke users – that’s why these test strips were brought in, and even though they are a buck apiece, they’ll let you know if there is fen­tanyl present in any other drugs, within a rea­son­able amount of sta­tis­ti­cal proof,” Walsh said, adding that if peo­ple don’t know that the drug is present, they don’t un­der­stand the kind of risk they’re tak­ing.

“It’s so worth it. One buck is not a lot in terms of sav­ing lives.”

FILE PHOTO

Tree Walsh is the harm-re­duc­tion man­ager at the Safe Works Ac­cess Pro­gram.

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