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Toronto needle exchange site reopens despite social distancing fears

A supervised injection site has been reopened after being temporarily closed over fears that it would not meet the physical distancing requirements.
Quinn Patrick Montreal, QC

A supervised injection site called The Works Needle Exchange Program, or "The Works," was reopened on Saturday. It had been closed for almost a month over fears that it would not meet the physical distancing requirements, according to CBC.

Toronto Public Health spokesperson, Dr. Rita Shahin confirmed that site will be reopened and that staff will be on site to provide their services on an appointment basis.

Shahin said the city of Toronto had 19 overdose-related deaths in March which was the highest number of its kind in the past year. In March, paramedics of Toronto Public Health received 345 calls of suspected opioid overdoses. Since the beginning of April, there were another 154 suspected opioid overdose calls. Of those, nine resulted in fatalities.

"This is very concerning and underscores the critical need for life-saving supervised consumption services in our community," wrote Shahin in an email to CBC.

Appointments at The Works Needle Exchange Program are half an hour long and staff are capable of serving four clients an hour. The site normally offered six booths but that number was reduced down to two in order to comply with the social distancing measures.

People will have to remain at least two metres apart while in line, and fencing has been built around the entrance to the office. "These fences will remain for the foreseeable future as part of our response efforts to COVID-19," said Shahin.

Toronto's medical officer of health, Dr. Eileen de Villa said that the needle exchange site was initially closed on March 18 because there was a lack of safety measures in relation to the spread of COVID-19. "We know that COVID-19 spreads more easily in congregate settings and the Works clinic was not set up for appropriate physical distancing," De Villa said on Thursday.

"My team is actively working to identify solutions to quickly resume providing these critical life-saving services, and ways to address physical distancing challenges. Right now, we are completing work to establish an appointment-based model for our supervised consumption service and we are aiming to reopen this weekend."

Dr. De Villa said the decision to close down the needle exchange site wasn't an easy one. "In March, we made the difficult decision to temporarily close this critical health service. This was upsetting for all of us given the current overdose crisis, which has persisted throughout this pandemic, and in fact in March 2020 we saw the highest number of suspected opioid overdose deaths recorded in any month since March 2019."

"The reason it closed down was because of physical space requirements. It was in a relatively confined space," said Toronto Mayor John Tory on CBC Radio, ensuring that The Works will remain open in the long run.

"In the end, these harm reduction facilities, which are still controversial with a few people, save lives. We saw the number of overdoses going back up while The Works supervised consumption site was closed." said Tory.

"So the notion that we can get this back open, if necessary by appointment, that's what we'll do, and the objective is exactly the same as it's always been, saving lives."

The Works is located at 277 Victoria St., close to Younge-Dundas Square. The site's hours are from Monday to Saturday 1:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. For those unable to make an appointment over the phone and do so through the help of an outreach workers for The Works.

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