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Illicit-drug use by patients at Victoria General Hospital is common, says nurse

B.C. Nurses Union steward says nurses are exposed to toxic drug fumes, illicit powders and injury from intoxicated patients
Victoria General Hospital. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

A Victoria General Hospital nurse says illicit drug use by patients occurs daily in the hospital, and the health authority does little to enforce no-smoking rules, which is putting nurses and other staff at risk.

“I can definitely tell you it happens daily,” Laura Martin said outside the hospital’s main admitting area on Thursday. “We have a no-smoking policy but nothing’s enforced.”

Martin, a B.C. Nurses’ Union steward for the approximately 1,200 nurses at the hospital, wiped away tears as she talked about trying to protect nurses from inhaling toxic drugs, touching illicit powders with ungloved hands, and being injured by intoxicated patients.

The B.C. Nurses’ Union supports harm-reduction measures, but president Adriane Gear said the “prevalence” of illicit-drug use in hospitals has spiked since possession of small amounts was decriminalized, which is exposing nurses not only to toxic fumes but also the criminal element bringing drugs to these patients.

“No one’s monitoring that and that’s ­ridiculous,” Gear said in an interview.

Gear is proposing a type of safer-­consumption site at hospitals to at least ­contain and supervise the use if it’s to be permitted. She said addiction is a health issue, so there needs to be a balanced approach, but it can’t threaten the safety of health-care workers.

“[Health authorities] have these policies that look good on paper, but they don’t enforce them and at 3 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday night when you’re working a 50 per cent staff, that’s when this stuff blows up,” Gear said.

“It’s the prevalence, it’s the frequency in which it’s happening,” she said.

“Before there would be behaviours that just wouldn’t be tolerated, whereas now because of decriminalization, it is being tolerated.”

Martin cited the case of a pregnant nurse who was exposed to toxic drug fumes last summer — “How terrifying is that?”

A Worksafe BC compliance agreement in June based on an inspection of 1952 Bay St. — Royal Jubilee Hospital — cites “exposure to illicit substances in the workplace.” Inspections from March to May 2023 also included Campbell River, Victoria General and community health sites.

In a controversial leaked memo revealed Wednesday, Northern Health instructs hospital staff to allow patients to use drugs in their hospital rooms.

The memo, sent to G.R. Baker staff in Quesnel in July 2023, says staff are not to search or seize patients’ drugs or weapons with blades less than four inches long, or restrict visitors who bring them drugs for personal use.

The memo explains the protocol stems from the province’s decriminalization policy, which applies to anyone in possession of 2.5 grams or less of fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine or MDMA.

BC United health critic Shirley Bond said Victoria General Hospital has been forced to install safety alarms to detect toxic fentanyl smoke.

“Imagine being a nurse in the maternity ward where a blinking light means you now scramble for a respirator to deal with toxic fumes,” said Bond. “That’s the reality for nurses at Victoria General.”

Martin said smoke detectors have been placed in Victoria General’s ER department specifically because of drug use. Island Heath says 20 smoke detectors have been installed at VGH over the past several months in various locations around the site, not just in the perinatal unit.

Bond accused the provincial government of prioritizing a policy that facilitates drug use over the rights of nurses and newborn babies to be safe from exposure to heroin, meth, crack cocaine and fentanyl.

She asked Dix to issue a directive to health authorities that illicit drug use is not permitted, weapons are not allowed and the safety of nurses and patients will be prioritized.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said in question period Thursday that possession and use of controlled substances are prohibited for all clients in emergency departments, any unit where there are clients under the age of 18, in-patient psychiatric units and in-patient withdrawal units. Weapons are prohibited, as is smoking, he said.

“Does it mean that that never happens? Of course it doesn’t mean that never happens. But it is absolutely not allowed to do that. This is not anything that’s changed recently. It was true 10 years ago, it was true 20 years ago, and it’s true now.”

Victoria General hospitalist Dr. Mark Mallet says patients aren’t prevented from going outside unless they’re certified under the Mental Health Act, “and we are well aware that some patients with addictions will use drugs while outside.”

Mallet said it’s a form of harm reduction. “If we don’t allow them outside to use drugs, they could very well just leave and not come back, and typically that puts them at risk of worse health outcomes.

“At least if they go outside, they’re less likely to put others in danger, and if they come back inside in an altered state, at least staff have some idea of what probably happened.”

Premier David Eby, in an unrelated press conference Thursday, said initiatives like decriminalization were done to keep people alive amid a “massive epidemic of opioid use disorder” and to get them into treatment, which does not mean “you can use drugs anywhere you want.”

Island Health said in a statement its staff won’t confiscate personal amounts of illicit drugs that patients bring into hospital unless it’s deemed unsafe, but weapons and smoking are prohibited.

In most cases, people who bring substances into a care setting will maintain possession of those substances throughout the duration of their admission or visit, the health authority said.

Substances and substance-use paraphernalia must be treated as personal belongings, it said, although “law enforcement should be notified when significant amounts of illicit substances are found in the possession of a person receiving care or unattended in an Island Health facility.”

Martin said if some politicians don’t think illicit drug use is a problem in hospitals on the Island and around the province, “I invite Adrian Dix to come and walk a shift for 12 hours with a nurse on any one of these units and then tell me different.”

What the Health Ministry says

The B.C. Health Ministry says when hospital staff believe a client is in possession of a controlled substance, they need to follow these steps:

• Clarify the nature of the substance in their possession.

• Provide the client with information on where to safely use controlled substances.

• Inform the client that they are permitted to bring a small amount of controlled substances into healthcare settings.

• Provide the client information on where to access substance use supplies, including drug testing (test strips) as available and when appropriate.

• Offer the client safer substance use education as available.

• Inform the client that substances and supplies cannot be left unattended out in the open as it poses a risk to others. Failure to act in accordance with this guidance can result in the disposal of the controlled substances.

Source: B.C. Health Ministry

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