Victoria pharmacy delivering safe drug supply directly to homeless during pandemic

WatchThe opioid crisis continues along its devastating and deadly path in B.C. at the same time as the COVID-19 pandemic. It's become even more challenging for vulnerable people to access the safe supply of drugs they need. Now, one pharmacy has a solution.

Registered nurse Emily Tarasoff pulls her small, square cart through the halls of the Travelodge on Gorge Road, a hotel that’s now housing some of Victoria’s homeless population.

She stops at a door. “Pharmacy!” she shouts, knocking loudly. The door opens and Tarasoff’s client greets her with a smile and a cheerful “Hi!”

This is just one of Tarasoff’s stops. She’s making her daily rounds, delivering medication to treat opioid addiction to some of the city’s most vulnerable.

“Basically we go to the door, we knock, we announce who we are and then we need to witness the opioid agonist treatment medication (OAT),” said Tarasoff. “So we witness those and then they’re given some safe supply and they sign off that they’ve taken their medication.”

She’s part of a team of nurses and outreach workers at the Gorge Forbes Pharmacy that provides these safe, pharmaceutical alternatives to street opioids. The medication works on the same sort of receptors as illicit drugs, said pharmacist Josh Karroll. But these ones are safer.

“It helps them stabilize so they don’t need to be looking for it on the street,” explained Karroll. “Instead they get it delivered to their house and it helps maintain them so they aren’t craving. They’re not in withdrawals all day.”

This new at-home delivery is a new service offered by the pharmacy. Before COVID-19, only pharmacists were able to deliver these sorts of medications. When the pandemic hit, however, it became increasingly challenging for vulnerable patients to access the treatment.

“Sometimes when we [tried] to phone them, or once in a while when they came in, that’s when [they’d] say transportation has been disrupted because of COVID. And that’s why they can’t make it to the pharmacy,” said Pramod Lakhiani, another pharmacist.

During a time when overdose deaths are at record highs, this was very concerning for the pharmacists. So when the College Of Pharmacists Of B.C. announced temporary changes to the policy, allowing regulated health professionals like nurses to deliver OAT medication, the pharmacy mobilized and put together this service.

These deliveries are life-changing for people like Bill Phelps, who participates in the program.

“It has helped a lot because I take a few meds,” he said. “I had a head injury a few years ago and the meds help to get me stabilized to work every day.”

Phelps is one of more than 200 people Tarasoff’s team helps every day. The changes to the policy, however, are just temporary.

“The need for this is [great],” said Tahara Hosseini, pharmacy assistant. “I’m really hoping that they do keep this after COVID because it has been life-changing.”

Jasmine BalaJasmine Bala

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