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Visits to Calgary’s supervised drug consumption site have dropped by a third after the facility cut its capacity because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which experts say has increased the risk of overdoses.

A recent report from Alberta Health Services says the site, known as Safeworks, has had a steady increase in use since opening in late 2017, but that usage dropped during March and April. While supervised consumption sites are allowed to stay open as an essential service, they are operating at a reduced capacity to facilitate physical distancing and limit the spread of COVID-19.

The site, at the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre, had approximately 6,600 visits a month between December and February, but just 5,850 in March, an 11-per-cent reduction from the previous month. Visits dropped again in April to 4,440, a third lower than in the winter months.

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The report was released as supervised consumption services in Alberta face an uncertain future. It has been more than two months since the provincial government issued a scathing report that concluded supervised drug consumption sites are a blight on their neighbourhoods. Premier Jason Kenney has said some of the sites could be closed or relocated.

The Calgary site reduced capacity by half in March to maintain physical distancing within the consumption room. While the number of clients accessing Safeworks each month has decreased, the amount of overdoses has spiked. Safeworks responded to 83 overdoses in March and 87 in April, which is roughly a third higher than the average of 57 a month from December to February.

Elliott Tanti, of Boyle Street Community Services, which operates a site in Edmonton, said supervised consumption sites have had to adjust how they deliver services during the pandemic, with measures including limiting the number of people inside.

Elaine Hyshka, who teaches at the University of Alberta’s school of public health, countermeasures to stop COVID-19′s spread are very likely increasing the risk of overdoses.

Dr. Hyshka said the social effects of isolation and restrictions on supervised consumption services could be factors. “There’s less access, so people are more likely to be using other places where there isn’t available systems in the event of an overdose.”

Dr. Hyshka said that in addition to supporting people who use controlled substances, supervised consumption sites also provide health care services to many who might not have access otherwise. While provincial health guidelines recommend staying home when possible, limiting physical proximity to others and frequent hand-washing, not everyone has the resources to do these things.

“People who are homeless or living on the street, they don’t have those amenities,” Dr. Hyshka said. “Those harm-reduction services are providing very critical front-line care. They’re on the front line of the pandemic and helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

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The Alberta government released a report in March that concluded supervised consumption sites led to an increase in crime and disorder in their neighbourhoods.

The report was criticized at the time by experts, who objected to some of its findings, such as arguing that drug users who received oxygen, rather than the overdose-reversing naloxone, should not be counted as overdoses.

Members of the panel have defended their work, while Mr. Kenney has derided the facilities as “NDP drug sites,” referring to the previous government. The United Conservative Party government has said its focus is instead on rehabilitation and treatment, and it has announced funding to increase the number of drug treatment beds in the province.

Associate Minister of Mental Health and Addiction Jason Luan was not available for an interview. His press secretary, Kassandra Kitz, said in a statement that the government has not made any decisions and had no timeline for when that would happen. She said the province is focused instead on the COVID-19 pandemic and recent floods in northern Alberta.

Rebecca Haines-Saah, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s community health sciences department, said the March report and the government’s criticisms of consumption sites weren’t based in fact.

“It just shows you, I think, a disregard for scientific evidence," she said. “More so than what we’re choosing to invest in and why, it’s that the choices we’re making are based on non-evidence.”

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Dr. Haines-Saah said governments need to approach drug use with a broad range of interventions, rather than focusing too heavily on recovery at the expense of harm reduction.

“We’ve seen a continued focus from this government on investing in other supports in the continuum that are part of how we respond to substance use, but they’re very much aligned with a particular ideology of abstinence-based recovery," she said. "And we haven’t had that response right now so sites are in limbo.”

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Many of Calgary’s homeless have found something they fear more than not having a bed to sleep in at night - catching the COVID-19 virus. A walk through Calgary’s downtown with a homeless outreach group on a drizzly night found clusters of people, hunkered down under bridges, behind restaurants, in doorways and across from the locked gates of the imposing Calgary Drop-In Centre. The Canadian Press
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