“We can’t wait anymore”: Peterborough’s Board of Health commits up to $250,000 to open interim supervised drug consumption site in March

Peterborough Public Health has secured the first plank of funding it needs to open an interim supervised drug consumption site next month.

At a virtual meeting Wednesday night, Peterborough’s Board of Health voted to kick in up to $250,000 to get the site up and running, if provincial funding doesn’t materialize by March.

It would cost an estimated $674,000 to run the interim site from March until November, according to a report by public health staff. The health unit is racing to secure additional funding from the City of Peterborough, private donors and “community partners” in order to open the site next month, as the death toll from the drug poisoning crisis continues to climb.

Hiawatha First Nation councillor Kathryn Wilson made an emotional plea to her fellow health board members to approve the funding.

“My niece lost her father last year to an overdose,” she said. “When you look at your children and think how horrible it would be for them to wake up one day and not have you, it’s very emotional.”

“We can’t wait anymore,” she said. “So I will wholeheartedly make the motion to use the funds to do whatever it is we need to do to save people. We have to… we just have to.”

Wilson also said that a member of Hiawatha First Nation, who was living out west, died from an overdose Wednesday morning. She left behind five children, Wilson said.

After months of waiting on the Ontario government to approve funding for a permanent supervised drug consumption site, Peterborough’s medical officer of health Dr. Thomas Piggott said the community cannot afford further delays. 

“This service is desperately needed,” he told board members. “This emergency needs addressing.”

Last week, Dr. Piggott asked Peterborough county council to help fund the interim site, which would operate out of Peterborough’s newly-opened Opioid Response Hub, on Simcoe Street. It would run 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for a period of nine months, or until provincial funding for a permanent site at the same location is granted. 

County council voted to defer its decision until April.

Peterborough Public Health is expected to make a funding request to Peterborough city council next month, the Peterborough Examiner has reported.

The health unit would provide few details about its plans to secure additional funding from private donors and “community partners.” 

Public health staff are “actively working with a number of local partners to raise the financial and in-kind resources” to operate the site, wrote Evan Brockest, a health promoter with Peterborough Public Health in an email to Peterborough Currents. “As these conversations are ongoing, no further information is available at this time.” Nor would he say how much the City will be asked to contribute.

Dr. Piggott had told county council it would cost approximately $757,000 to run the service until November. But amidst the funding uncertainty, the budget has been pared down to an estimated $674,000, according to the staff report.

But public health staff appear to be determined to open the site as soon as possible, even if fundraising efforts fall short of their target. The staff report says the service will operate “over a period of nine months, or as long as funding allows.”

Asked to clarify whether the service would open without funding for the full nine months, Brockest wrote that “our objective remains to get an overdose prevention site up and running as quickly as possible based on the funding available at this time.”

Health Canada granted the Simcoe Street facility an exemption from federal drug laws to allow the use of illegal drugs inside its doors last May, conditional upon proof of funding and a site visit. 

But an application for operating funding has languished at Ontario’s health ministry for more than a year without a decision.

A health ministry spokesperson told Peterborough Currents in an email that the application is “under review.”

All applications for supervised drug consumption and treatment sites, which the province calls Consumption and Treatment Services sites, “are subject to a rigorous screening process,” the spokesperson added.

Peterborough Public Health has recently consulted with Health Canada about the prospect of opening an interim site with alternative, short-term funding, until the province announces its decision, Brockest wrote.

Health Canada could give the final green light for the site to begin offering services within a matter of days, once funding is in place, the report said.

Health is a provincial responsibility, county councillors argue

Last week, some Peterborough county councillors argued against funding the interim site because healthcare is supposed to be a provincial responsibility.

“The county’s funds come primarily from property tax dollars – and theoretically property taxes should not fund health,” said Otonabee-South Monaghan Mayor Joe Taylor. “But unfortunately that ship sailed years ago and we have been [dragged] into the healthcare business and we’re not getting out of it. But I’m reluctant to get into it further if it’s not absolutely necessary.”

Dr. Piggott pointed out that some Ontario cities have provided funding to supervised drug consumption sites on an interim basis while awaiting permanent provincial funding.

Last September, Timmins city council voted to spend just over $1 million to run an interim consumption site. 

Public health extends drug poisoning alert

Calls for an interim supervised drug consumption site came as the region experienced a spike in overdose-related emergency department visits last week.

Overdoses send about eight people in the region to hospital in an average seven-day period. But that number climbed to 10 last week, prompting Peterborough Public Health to issue its second drug poisoning alert in as many months.

The alert was extended on Monday after seven “drug-related incidents” occurred over the weekend, according to a press release from the health unit. 

Some of the recent overdoses may have occurred at the Peterborough Public Library’s main branch on Aylmer Street, which sits kitty-corner to the Opioid Response Hub on Simcoe Street.

Paramedics have responded to four suspected overdoses in the library washroom since last week, library CEO Jennifer said at Tuesday’s library board meeting.

Three of the people survived, Jones said. The fourth suspected overdose happened earlier Tuesday and Jones did not have an update on the person’s status during the meeting.

She said there’s been an increase in marginalized and vulnerable community members using the library in recent months.

“The mental health and behavioural challenges staff have been contending with in the library are becoming more prevalent,” Jones wrote in a report to the board. “Staff have been trying to address several issues that are beyond their comfort levels, without the necessary tools.” 

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