Our Cowichan’s Cindy Lise explains how sobering and detox task force has had to face new challenges recently. (Lexi Bainas/Gazette)

Our Cowichan’s Cindy Lise explains how sobering and detox task force has had to face new challenges recently. (Lexi Bainas/Gazette)

VIDEO: Opioid crisis if it’s not at Lake Cowichan yet, it’s coming

Cindy Lise talks to Lake Cowichan council about the current opioid crisis in the Valley.

If it’s not here yet, it soon will be.

That was part of the message Cindy Lise from Our Cowichan Community Health Network had for Town of Lake Cowichan councillors last week on the subject of the opioid crisis in the Cowichan Valley.

Keeping in close contact with your community is one sure way to help deal with the current crisis she told them.

Our Cowichan Community Health Network is part of a wide-ranging team that is finding itself faced with a variety of significant challenges since the opioid drug crisis has hit the province.

Figures from the B.C. Coroner paint a grim picture.

“Between Jan. 1, 2016 and May 31, 2017, 251 people have died as a result of suspected overdose on Vancouver Island. We know that in the same period of time, 22 individuals have died in the Cowichan health area. We have also had over 150 individuals attend the [hospital] emergency department with an overdose as well as numerous unreported overdoses in our community,” she said.

“Because of this crisis, we have been mandated to look at overdose prevention sites and make every effort that we can to reduce the death count,” she said.

On top of that, the community as a whole is upset because a lot of needles and drug paraphernalia are being found, she said.

“Initially a couple of years ago we had the sobering and detox task force that came together because of what was called a ‘cell death’ that came from a young man who had been taken into the Cowichan jail cell and was very shortly thereafter went into medical distress, was transferred to Cowichan District Hospital and then to Victoria Hospital where he died of his significant intoxication with multiple drugs and alcohol at the time.”

Because the death was within so many hours of occupying a Cowichan jail cell, it was classified as a cell death so the Coroner investigated and made numerous recommendations, Lise said.

One of them was to create a task force to look at sobering and detox resources and challenges that exist within the community. The Our Cowichan Health Network was deemed best poised to take on that task.

With a variety of partners, they created a report that went back to Coroner.

“We also started working together… on sobering and detox challenges.”

Simultaneously the Ministry of Health announced funding for 500 substance use beds across the province.

“We were then contacted by Island Health and were informed that Cowichan would receive funding for two beds. Because of the work we had done and our team approach, we were able to say: No way! We need far more than that. We lobbied and were able to increase that funding to four beds.”

Careful allotment of resources eventually saw them turn that into six spaces, she said.

“We were also able, as a task force, to say: we want to design the delivery model for these beds and determine how they are used.”

Working with input from a wide variety of partners, they decided on “sobering beds”, which are “mats on a floor with trained staff to help care for individuals in the time when they cannot care for themselves,” Lise explained.

The sobering process is not for folks who are in medical distress. Anyone taking part must be able to walk, talk, and follow directions, she said, adding anyone in medical distress is “immediately transferred to Cowichan District Hospital.”

It’s a worthwhile exercise for all concerned that “will divert approximately 500 individuals out of a Cowichan jail cell in 2017,” she said.

That, alone, is an important aim for the network and its partners.

The sobering program is quietly located in the same building as Warmland House homeless shelter but has its very own wing, with a separate entrance.

“They are not together. If the folks at Warmland need that service, they are sent around. We opened in December and within minutes of being opened, the very first individual used the sobering centre and it has been used every day since then,” Lise told councillors.

The program can serve six individuals a day 24/7 and depending on the kind of substance they are sobering from they can be there from four to six hours up to 36 hours. Some of the drugs nowadays take a long time to recover from, she explained.

But once that was accomplished, task force members began to wonder if they were still needed.

“And the opioid crisis walloped us on the side of the head and swallowed up our community,” she said.

Cities like Nanaimo and Victoria were a bit earlier in experiencing increasing deaths from overdoses but Cowichan began to feel that pain, too.

“We made the decision to keep our task force together. We have renamed as the community response team because now we are responding to a crisis.”

Engaging with the community has seen unexpected help.

“On June 13, a wonderful woman named Stacy Middlemiss held a session in Duncan on ‘Stigma’ and 100 people attended that session. At it, individuals who have been dealing with addiction for a long time came in and shared their stories and how they progressed and how the fear of letting people know or [seeing their addictions become known] drove them deeper into their addictions. We learnt a lot from those very brave people that night.”

Another catalyst was the report, later proved to be false, that a young girl had been attacked near the Quamichan campus of Cowichan Secondary School.

“What it did was create chaos and anger in the community around the open drug use and homelessness that we have.”

Another forum June 19 saw more learning by everyone who came out, she said.

“Because of all of this, the overdose prevention site was put on hold until we could address some of the concerns our community has. What wasn’t put on hold was the needle collection. But what we’ve also learned is that, as the opioid crisis hits us, there is no street or home or community member that is free from this.

“The overdoses are happening everywhere and 89 per cent are actually in community homes, houses, buildings. Only 11 per cent are the people who we now see openly using on the street.”

Another aspect of the problem is the new drugs are forcing users into new behaviours.

“Now, people are often so affected that it doesn’t matter where they are using, they just need to use,” she said.

Our Cowichan, which includes representation from the Town of Lake Cowichan, is looking at its newest role.

“It’s complicated. It’s messy. But what we want people to know is that there is a team of folks working together to find solutions and do the best we can,” Lise said.

She urged Lake Cowichan councillors to look around and learn what the situation is in their town.

“I imagine that the challenges are coming your way if you don’t have them already. We encourage the conversation, we encourage people to look at harm reduction, at the services that are there already, and engage with each other. We are focusing right now on the Duncan core because that’s where there are a significant number of individuals at this time.

“We also have a group of youth that have been identified. They have banded together for safety [and to support each other]. Through the Mental Health Association, there is an outreach working to connect with them,” she said.