Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart says the federal government has given the green light for a safe supply of drugs for Downtown Eastside residents in light of the COVID-19 crisis.
“We must tackle the poisoned drug epidemic, something that has already cost us more than 1,000 lives,” said Stewart during a news conference where a wide variety of measures to help DTES residents from contracting or spreading the COVID-19 virus was announced.
Stewart said the details of the rollout would come from the provincial government in the days ahead, and would be focused on the 20 to 30 per cent of drug users in the community not already connected with health-care providers and existing safe injection sites.
B.C. Chief Medical Health Officer Bonnie Henry has called for a safer supply of drugs for over a year, saying it would allow drug users to “seek help without the fear of being charged criminally.”
The provincial and federal governments have not provided details yet on the timeline or specifics of what the new policy will entail.
Coal Harbour and Roundhouse now shelter spaces
The city also announced that Coal Harbour and Roundhouse community centres have been turned into referral-only shelter centres for DTES residents who cannot safely shelter in place or if they develop COVID-19 symptoms.
In addition, all public access and washrooms at the three community centres that remain open (Carnegie, Gathering Place and Evelyne Saller) have been closed, though they will still offer food services with take-out meals.
The city has also begun taking over hotel space so that anyone with COVID-19 symptoms who cannot self-isolate has adequate shelter.
While there has not been a confirmed case of COVID-19 among homeless Downtown Eastside residents yet, the city and province are worried because many of them have underlying health issues and enforcing social distancing on Hastings and Cordova streets can be a challenge.
“I want to be clear, it is circulating,” said Vancouver Coastal Health Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Patricia Daly.
“[But] it’s how we act to minimize the risk.”
Unlike the rest of municipalities in B.C., Vancouver can still issue new orders under its state of emergency, but may only do so with the express permission of the provincial government.
“I know there’s a lot of fear and nervousness out there,” said Stewart earlier this week, in response to a question on how the city could protect DTES residents without infringing on civil liberties.
“There’s no intention on our part to do some sort of mass quarantine.”
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