Hundreds of people are getting a safe supply of opioids delivered to their doors, thanks to new rules for who can administer prescription opioids. And one Victoria pharmacy says it’s seeing the life-saving results.
Every day, a team of nurses and pharmacists working out of the Forbes Pharmacy on Gorge Road delivers “opioid agonist” treatment — medications such as Suboxone and methadone — and prescription hydromorphone to patients living in hotels converted to temporary supportive housing, as well as others in the community.
The program, funded by the provincial PharmaCare program, is aimed at reducing reliance on toxic and potentially deadly street drugs for people with addictions.
“We’re doing the deliveries and they’re getting the benefit of having the medication come right to them,” said Emily Tarasoff, a registered nurse who works for the pharmacy. “Basically, you’re witnessing the medication and handing off their safe supply.”
In at least two cases, the daily visits have saved lives. The nurses entered someone’s room as they were experiencing an overdose, so they administered Naloxone to reverse the effects of opioids. Nurses work with outreach staff at the hotels to access people’s rooms and connect with new clients.
Previously, only pharmacists were permitted to dispense prescription medication and witness patients taking it. However, as as result of the pandemic and the B.C. government’s rollout of a safe-drug-supply program in March, the B.C. College of Pharmacists changed its rules to allow other health professionals to witness patients taking opioid-replacement medication.
In September, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry issued a public health order that allows registered nurses to prescribe opioid alternatives to toxic street drugs.
Bernie Pauly, a professor in the University of Victoria’s School of Nursing and a scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, applauded efforts to give nurses more of a role in prescribing and delivering a safe supply of opioids. “The more that we can increase access to safer supply, the more lives can be saved,” she said. “One thing that we know: When people get stabilized, they’re on their particular path to recovery.”
According to data released this week by the B.C. Coroners Service, 147 people died of illicit drug overdose in August. That’s down from the 176 illicit-drug deaths in July and the record 181 fatalities in June. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the overdose crisis by disrupting supply channels, resulting in higher concentrations of fentanyl in illicit drugs. There were 113 illicit-drug overdoses in March, up from 73 in February.
Tarasoff started delivering the opioid medication to about 10 patients living in tents in Topaz Park, and now her delivery schedule includes 250 patients. She said seeing people every day and witnessing their medication has allowed her to build relationships and trust. The other day, she ordered pizza for residents moving out of a temporary emergency shelter that had been set up at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre.
“People are different once they’re on treatment,” Tarasoff said. “Just the ability for them to stabilize is the key thing. Once you see them stabilize, it’s a good time to get in there and provide any extra support.”
Dosage can be adjusted based on clients’ needs, and the program allows the prescription to be delivered within hours of someone talking to a doctor or nurse at the supportive housing facility, said pharmacists Josh Karroll and Pramod Lakhiani.
Tahara Hosseini, the pharmacy assistant who launched the delivery program for the Gorge Road Forbes Pharmacy, said along with checking that the dosage is correct, nurses can assess any other medical needs during their daily visits.
“This has been life-changing for so many patients,” she said. Not only does it help those who might have trouble getting to the pharmacy in person, it ensures that people who might be isolated are getting a friendly visit every day, she said.
“All of us here have built relationships with these clients. We are part of their daily life.”