2 harm reduction hubs halt their supervised injection services due to 'staff feeling unwell'

The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre has hosted a supervised drug consumption site for more than six years. (CBC - image credit)
The Sandy Hill Community Health Centre has hosted a supervised drug consumption site for more than six years. (CBC - image credit)

Two harm reduction hubs in Ottawa have suspended their supervised injection sites indefinitely after reports of "staff feeling unwell," and in one location due to "harmful fumes" released from heated drugs.

In an email to CBC News Friday afternoon, an Ontario Ministry of Health spokesperson said the supervised injection sites at both Sandy Hill Community Health Centre and Somerset West Community Health Centre are closed "until investigations into the source of the illness are concluded."

The ministry said it's in communication with both sites and Ottawa Public Health to monitor the situation as it evolves.

Suzanne Obiorah, executive director of the Somerset West location, said they've had two instances of harmful fumes emitted by drugs being heated at the site over the last few days. Somerset West says their supervised injection site is also a supervised consumption and treatment service where people can inject, pop and snort drugs.

The fumes caused staff to experience an array of symptoms including nausea, dizziness and headaches, she said.

"Everyone has recovered and is fine," Obiorah wrote in an emailed statement. "We recognize that temporarily closing the [site] will have an impact on our clients and community, and we are doing our best to minimize this impact by redeploying staff to our courtyard and continuing our outreach activities."

Ministry of Labour notified last week

The province's Ministry of Labour said it was notified of a health and safety event at the Sandy Hill location on Feb. 23.

This past Tuesday, on Feb. 27, a ministry inspector went to that location.

In an email to CBC Friday afternoon, the Labour Ministry said its investigation is ongoing and it can't provide further details.

Wendy Stewart, director of the Sandy Hill centre's OASIS program said the site had closed because of what the centre calls "a recent health and safety issue."

Stewart said staff reported feeling dizzy and nauseous. While symptoms were "very brief," she says this has never happened before at her location.

When asked if it may be due to harmful fumes, Stewart said she's relying on further investigation to determine the cause — but said she wondered whether if it was a ventilation issue.

"We need to explore this further," Stewart said on CBC radio's All In A Day on Friday afternoon.

poster inside Sandy Hill Community Health Centre
poster inside Sandy Hill Community Health Centre

This poster hangs inside a room inside the Oasis clinic at Sandy Hill Community Health Centre. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Further information on what happened isn't immediately available. The centre on Nelson Street said in the alert on its website that it's figuring out what to do next.

It said other services such as drug checking and equipment distribution are not affected, and it's "exploring options to redeploy staff to do outreach and engagement in the neighbourhood and overdose response outside."

Coun. Ariel Troster, whose ward includes Somerset West Community Health Centre, was visiting the site Friday.

"This facility is critical. They reverse hundreds of overdoses each year," she said.

Troster is reminding residents they can have their drugs tested.

Sandy Hill Community Health Centre has a drug testing machine — which recently detected an animal tranquilizer mixed in fentanyl samples brought in by users — and it remains available pending the ministry's investigation, Stewart said on Saturday.

Ottawa Inner City Health's clinic also has a testing machine.

Other sites in the city

Ottawa has four of Canada's 39 supervised injection sites where trained staff can help people who use drugs in case they need urgent care.

Sandy Hill hosted the first, starting in 2017. There are two nearby in Lowertown on Clarence and Murray streets, and on Eccles Street in Centretown.

An inside view of the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre's safe consumption site.
An inside view of the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre's safe consumption site.

An inside view of the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre's safe consumption site in 2020, when some of the booths were closed for physical distancing. (Submitted by Rob Boyd)

Emergency department visits for unintentional opioid overdoses in Ottawa have increased significantly since 2015. The problem goes back further, starting in the 1990s.

There were 93 confirmed opioid overdose deaths in Ottawa in the first six months of 2023, according to Ottawa Public Health (OPH) data, and 285 suspected drug overdose deaths for all of 2023.

In an emailed statement to CBC, OPH said it will conduct "enhanced surveillance of overdose and related trends for as long as there is reduced access to supervised consumption services" due to the two suspended sites.

OPH said it is working with its partners to assess and support those impacted by the disruptions.

A significant element of what Ottawa's medical officer of health recently called the "complex challenges" of the opioid crisis is that street drugs are unpredictable and can be laced with potent substances such as fentanyl and animal tranquilizers.

Another is housing instability, with many people who use drugs unable to find or afford a place to live.