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Further delays for Cambridge CTS means 'more will die,' says top paramedic

Cambridge has one of the highest rates of opioid related deaths in Ontario; experts say a consumption and treatment services (CTS) site could help reduce those numbers
A safe consumption and treatment site is proposed for 150 Main St. in Cambridge.

As the opioid crisis continues to devastate families and communities across the region, Cambridge has become the region's hot-spot for opioid related deaths. 

It's a trend the AIDS Committee Of Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo and Area (ACCKWA) is hoping to reverse as soon as possible as it gets ready to host another public information session on the city's proposed consumption and treatment services (CTS) site. 

The upcoming information session will be open to anyone to answer any questions residents and business owners may still have about the service while explaining why Cambridge needs one now. 

Harm reduction advocates have been trying since 2018 to obtain the go ahead to create a space where users can consume substances surrounded by people trained to prevent overdoses while at the same time providing wrap-around supports including treatment and rehabilitation programs, food security and housing.

When the first application was submitted to public health five years ago, it was denied says Ruth Cameron, executive director of ACCKWA. 

Because it was denied, Cameron says she is taking the latest process very seriously and is trying to compile the most comprehensive application possible. 

"This is not something we are taking lightly, it's just like a doctor's office, hospital, cancer or cardiac centre. It is very important and it's providing a needed service to a specific portion of our community related to their health needs," Cameron says. 

The application will use data compiled in 2018, along with data and feedback gathered over the last five years. 

Cameron says she and staff are close to completing the application, but cannot give a timeline of when they will submit it to the province, or an idea of when it could open. 

According to data shared at an information session held with nearby residents last month, the city's preferred location at 150 Main St. would be perfect for a safe consumption and treatment services (CTS) site at a time when it's needed the most. 

"We shared that Cambridge is seeing the most opioid related deaths in the region," paramedic deputy chief Rob Crossan says. "To put it in perspective, two people a week are dying due to drug poisoning in Waterloo region."

Crossan is certain that a CTS will save lives in the city. 

"In the last four years, over 300 people have died. If we can save 10 per cent of those people by opening another CTS, that is 30 people that would still be alive," he adds. "Until that happens, unfortunately, more people will die."

Lindsay Klassen is the director of clinical services for Stonehenge, a partner with the CTS site in Guelph and a speaker for ACCKWA's information sessions.

She thinks the latest public outreach will be one of the last pieces of the puzzle ACCKWA needs to complete it's application to public health.

"At this point there's no significant obstacles standing in the way, just the process," Klassen says. 

"In Ontario, Cambridge has one of the highest rates of deaths among municipalities," she adds. "It's really quite critical that we get one built so we can start saving people as soon as possible." 

Klassen thinks ACCKWA has already built a strong enough application to submit to Ontario public health before seeking final approval from the federal health minister. 

Cambridge MP Bryan May says he doesn't have a dog in the fight, but stresses a decision on whether or not to have a site needs to be made soon. 

May says he will support whatever direction public health decides to go. 

The Cambridge CTS has been a contentious issue in the city for the last five years; becoming a hot topic during the municipal election last fall. 

Cameron addresses criticisms from the public and some local politicians like Mayor Jan Liggett who has been a vocal opponent of the endorsed location for the city's CTS. Soon after being elected last fall, Liggett pledged to lobby the province on the idea of implementing forced rehab for drug users. 

"I'm not interested in entertaining opinions on the delivery of healthcare from people who have no expertise in health care," Cameron says.

"The public wouldn't ever consider weighing in whether or not we would give gold standard cutting edge cancer therapies on the public. What we're gonna continue doing is the data collection that we've been doing and sharing the information that we have, regarding the current impact of the overdose crisis on our community."

She also defends the lengthy process of getting the site set up by saying, "there is no standardized application process for getting a safe consumption site set up in the city."

It took around nine months from endorsement to full opening for the Kitchener site. In comparison, Cambridge had site approval and endorsement from the region and the City of Cambridge 18 months ago. 

Kitchener's CTS has logged over 25,000 visits since the site opened in 2019 with close to 900 poisonings managed on site and no fatalities.

Details for the next public information session will be announced by ACCKWA when a date has been decided.

Unlike the Feb. 21 session, which was restricted to those living within 200 metres of 150 Main St., this will be open to all members of the community.