March 19, 2020
The Honourable Patricia Hajdu, MP Minister of Health
The Honourable Adrian Dix, MLA Minister of Health
DTES COVID-19 Task Force
Open Letter re: URGENT - COVID-19 Response and Resources needed for the DTES
Dear Minister Hajdu, Minister Dix, and the City of Vancouver DTES COVID-19 Task Force,
Let me begin by acknowledging all of your efforts during this unprecedented period. As we all work to ensure vulnerable communities are provided the necessary support during this health emergency, I am writing with urgency with regard to the immediate need for a coordinated response and resources for the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the opioid crisis which has not abated. The situation in the Downtown Eastside is dire and we must act now to minimize the impact of COVID-19 in this extremely vulnerable community.
The Downtown Eastside is home to some of the most vulnerable people in Canada, including people who are homeless, inadequately housed, struggling with mental health challenges and managing addictions. The living conditions of the population mean that many actions that could help prevent the spread of the virus, such as self-isolation and aggressive hygiene practices, are not available to the community members. As such, once the virus touches down on the community, we know that the effect will be severe and devasting. It is therefore absolutely vital that we take steps now to prevent an outbreak in the community as well as to be prepared for what is to come.
I have heard from front-line workers who are concerned that they do not know how to respond to overdoses in the community without appropriate personal protective equipment, including bag valve breathing equipment and N95 masks. The breathing barriers found in Naloxone kits will not protect against COVID19.
Given the substance misuse crisis in our community, we also need a plan for how Opioid Replacement Therapy will be delivered to those in isolation. This is an absolutely vital service that must continue. A front-line worker has told me about a community member who has recently returned from travels and therefore was not aware of the current COVID-19 health emergency situation, was informed that they should be self-quarantining to which they replied that they did not have a home to quarantine in, and that they will not go get tested for COVID-19 for fear of being quarantined, as they are a drug user and they wouldn’t have access.
With borders closing, health care workers say that we can expect the drug supply to change rapidly, and that a response in place to keep folks safe from an increasingly toxic drug supply is desperately needed. Overdose prevention workers have noted that within the past two weeks, drug samples are tainted with Benzodiazepines, which is a substance that does not respond to Naloxone. The need to implement Safe Supply to save lives is more urgent than ever. This measure will also help prevent our healthcare system from being overwhelmed.
There are concerns raised about the lack of direction for keeping residents and staff safe in Single Occupancy Hotels (SROs) and other non-profit and affordable housing. Visitors are being let in and out, and many of the buildings are in poor condition, including having holes in walls and unsanitary shared bathrooms. As such, staff and outreach workers working in these places are “scared” and need a plan now about how they should be protecting themselves and clients from the virus. Resources for building maintenance and sanitization efforts are also desperately needed.
Service agencies and shelters are also awaiting instructions on where to direct clients with flu-like symptoms who are seeking service.
As the government has just announced support for the homeless population and shelters helping people escaping gender-based violence, I would like to ensure that support is also extended to non-profit housing providers and front-line service agencies. These front-line organizations are doing their best to stay open and continuing to deliver essential services that they know that the community desperately needs. They too, express challenges in obtaining the safety supplies to keep staff and volunteers safe. People have been delving into their personal stocks and sharing safety equipment such as masks and disinfecting wipes with staff and volunteers to keep services running. A coordinated effort to make safety equipment available to non-profits and front-line workers is much needed.
Lastly, there are concerns about food supplies and neighbourhood safety. Many organizations in the DTES have closed or significantly reduced their meals, some have implemented food packaged to go initiatives. The ones who are trying their hardest to stay open, do not have the funds and resources to purchase necessary supplies and materials such as take-out containers, disposables, gloves, and sanitizing supplies. They need to keep running so that the pressure for feeding people doesn't rest on a few organizations.
It was explained to me that roughly half of the organizations have closed their doors and another half of those have halved the number of their meals (or more). Compounding the issue is the need for street market to close for safety reasons. That means people have less and less income and community members are expressing concerns that people may start taking drastic measures. There are seniors living in SROs where there are no kitchens, which may exacerbate the food problem. Funding for the supplies needed to run take-out food programs needs to flow immediately to prevent a food shortage in the community, and to make self-isolation possible for those with precarious access to food.
As you can see, the vulnerable populations in the Downtown Eastside and the front-line workers who serve the community are in dire need for all levels of government to jump in and provide support. There is no doubt that the situation is urgent, but we can prevent a disaster if we act now. Let’s not wait for COVID-19 to hit the Downtown Eastside before we put protective plans and housing in place.
Thank you so much for your prompt attention on these issues and I look forward to your response. As always, I offer my support and assistance in this critical time.
Member of Parliament for Vancouver East