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Vancouver nurse, union say concerns over drug use in hospitals politicized

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A Vancouver nurse is speaking out, saying politicians are using recent accounts of concerns related to the safety of health-care workers for political gain.

Serena Eagland, a clinical nurse specialist with a decade of experience treating substance use disorders, said politicizing this issue is only creating more harm during a public health crisis.

“When we have a toxic drug supply and when thousands of British Columbians have died, it doesn’t do good for anyone,” she said.

Questions about nurse safety have dominated the legislature this month, following a leaked internal memo from Northern Health, issued last July, that suggested weapons were allowed in hospitals and drugs could be used without any recourse for nurses.

The province said the memo predated policies regarding decriminalization, and was poorly worded

'Nurses are overworked'

Eagland said drug use in hospitals is not new. What has changed, she said, is the toxic and volatile drug supply.

“Medications that we are able to give within a medical setting don’t always meet someone’s pain needs, or their substance use needs, and so people then need to use to have those needs met,” she said.

Eagland acknowledged stories from her colleagues regarding exposure to drugs in the workplace and added the safety of health-care workers is paramount.

“People are worried and feeling unsafe and nurses are overworked, so I think it’s fair to say that those feelings are very accurate,” she said.

'There's two truths here'

Adriane Gear, the president of the BC Nurses’ Union, told CTV News that patients using substances within a health-care setting has become a concerning trend – but that the issue is complex. She said many nurses lack a culture of safety at work.

“There’s two truths here,” Gear said. “We need to address the poisoned drug crisis and we also have to keep health-care workers safe.”

Gear said some of what she’s seen in the legislature and read in the media has contributed to the politicization of what nurses are dealing with.

“I think there were some stark examples that I believe were politicized,” she said. “It doesn't make them less real, but they were politicized. I do believe that some of the reporting has been sensationalized.”

She said she worries these conversations could further stigmatize those who use substances.

“As much as this has become a problem, it’s not that it’s occurring in every hospital and every hospital room in this province, but it is occurring with increased frequency,” she said. “Nurses support harm reduction but it can’t be at the cost or at the expense of the nurses safety.”

Lack of nuance

BC United has also targeted the B.C. NDP’s decriminalization pilot project, connecting it to drug use at hospitals.

Hamish Telford, a political scientist and professor at the University of the Fraser Valley, said BC United and the Conservative Party of BC have seized on this wedge issue.

“It appears to be working with a wide swath of the public who are concerned about public drug consumption,” he said. “That drug consumption was always happening, but it was much more hidden previously, when drugs were criminalized.”

Telford added that while the parties have been successful in drumming up support, they have also ignored the nuance and complexity leading to why these issues are occurring.

“People are reducing it to very simple propositions,” he said. “Seemingly, if we recriminalize drugs, it will all go away, which of course is not going to happen.”

Eagland said she’d like to see politicians address the root causes that lead people into using substances, such as providing housing and mental health resources.

“The reality is that over 100,000 British Columbians have a substance use disorder and when they see in the media, 'Drug use doesn’t belong in the hospital,' that trust is eroded and people don’t want to seek health care,” she said. 

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