Naloxone kit administered with cases of drug overdose. Photo: James Hailman.
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Liability issues have played a key role in the problem

Although 101 Week at the University of Ottawa is over, the lack of naloxone kits—which are used to respond to an overdose—is still a cause for debate here on campus and in the city.

Naloxone is an antidote to opioid drug overdoses, which comes in the form of a needle or a nasal spray. The drug has been gaining popularity with almost half of the Ottawa Police Force, who are now equipped with naloxone.

This comes as many Canadian cities grapple with a spike in deaths related to opioids. The Public Health Agency of Canada estimated that around 2,500 Canadians died from opioid-related overdoses in 2016.

Debate over when to allow naloxone to be administered has created commotion across the city and at large events, like the WayHome music festival, which has been scrutinized for not initially permitting the use of the kits. A growing number of schools across Canada have also been training staff to use naloxone as well.

But here at the U of O, 101 Week guides felt unsettled when hearing they could not carry the kits at orientation week events,  as they would not be able to help as effectively in the case of an overdose.

Hadi Wess, president of the Student Federation at the University of Ottawa (SFUO), said that that the federation had initially planned to train around 100 student leaders, including guides, to administer naloxone kits, after student leaders brought up the issue concerning the opioid crisis last year.

Wess said the goal was “to do something to support the students, or save someone’s life, or increase someone’s chances of survival.”

However, after consulting with the federation’s lawyers, Wess said that issues of liability were raised. For instance, if the 101 Week guides made a mistake while administering the drug or caused damage to a student  with the kits, then the SFUO itself would be held responsible.

“We’re only doing what’s best for the federation and what’s safest,” Wess said. “This is such a short period of time, we don’t want to rush something and end up with a worst-case scenario.”

Bruce Feldthusen, a professor in the common law section at the U of O’s Faculty of Law, said that when attempting to treat  someone with an overdose—like in the case of using naloxone—there are different liability issues can that arise.

First of all, anyone who begins a rescue is under the obligation to avoid making the situation worse, and not to attempt aid which could prevent them from receiving help from someone more qualified.

Feldthusen added that it’s possible that in such a medical situation, the individual using naloxone is be under the obligation to alleviate the situation as opposed to just preventing further harm, which can lead to negative implications if the situation is not adequately addressed.

Another key factor is what the federation’s insurance will cover in such a situation. “Perhaps the critical question for the students and the SFUO is what (their) liability insurer tells (them) they will and will not cover,” Feldthusen said.

Wess also noted that the University of Ottawa Student Emergency Response Team (UOSERT), is not allowed to give medication, pierce the skin with needles or apply nasal spray—thus, they too could not administer the kits. Wess said that if UOSERT had to deal with an opioid overdose, they would keep the oxygen flow open until an ambulance arrived.

Wess said that students who were not acting in their capacity as a member of the SFUO at the time were free to administer naloxone kits in the event of an overdose.

The intention to use naloxone kits varies across Ontario. Some student unions, like the University of Toronto Student Union said in a statement that “due to the number of incoming students we have, we did not place them individually into orientation kits, however we are planning to have them available at our events.”

On the other hand, the Ryerson Student Union has no plans to introduce naloxone, saying “we have not given out any naloxone kits for orientation. There is no dialogue around this at the Ryerson Students Union at this moment.”

It’s also worth noting that some orientation weeks are planned by the university administration and not the student union, as is the case at Carleton University.

Wess said that while the SFUO could not equip its members with naloxone this year, the federation will push for it in the future. The federation is currently talking to Protection Services, Ottawa Public Health, and the Ottawa Hospital to figure out how to have naloxone at future events.

“It’s a positive initiative that we’re trying to do and we’re trying to continue, so it’s not going to stop here, we’re going to continue the conversation to try and reach a point where we can administer naloxone kits,” said Wess.