Vernon, B.C. — Staff at the Cammy LaFleur Street Outreach Clinic have seen an increase in cold-weather related injuries and illnesses.

Being wet and cold, with no options to warm up or dry off, pose some of the biggest health threats to people sleeping rough in our community.   

Staff at the clinic have been busy treating everything from frostbite, skin cracks, rashes and chapped skin to infections and chest colds.  

“Chest colds are big,” explained Carly, an outreach nurse with the clinic. “I hear a lot of the hacking or the dry cough, but as soon as they have a fever, I start to worry about pneumonia.”

Respiratory infections like pneumonia and influenza can be treated, but if left untreated, and if a person is continuously exposed to wet and cold conditions, these infections could lead to irreversible health complications. 

“Any cold exposure lowers your immune system,” Carly explained. “If your feet get wet, if any part of you gets wet, and you can’t get warm and dry, you can feel hopeless.”

Hypothermia is another concern; however, the staff at the clinic have not seen any cases this year.

Hypothermia can set in even if the air temperatures are not below freezing, especially if somebody is wet due to rain or sweat or melted snow, and has no option to dry off and warm up.  

Frostbite is the most common winter-weather injury being treated at the clinic. 

Frostbite happens when the tissue under the skin freezes. In extremely cold weather, frostbite can set in in less than 30 minutes.

“We are seeing people who have lost feeling in their hands; lost feeling in their toes. They can’t walk. They are doing a shuffle because it is just super painful. They can’t even take their boots off,” explained Carly.  “The sooner we can treat someone with frostbite the better.” 

The long-term exposure to the cold, for a person with untreated frostbite, could potentially lead to the loss of fingers, toes or even ears and noses. 

“You hear over and over again people talking about how cold it is in the Okanagan, but all I can think is that people are living out there. If you are feeling the effects of this weather, it is felt tenfold for anyone experiencing homelessness,” said Carly.

Long-term or repeated exposure to the cold can also lead to rashes, chapped skin and skin cracks, which according to Carly is also one of the most treated cold-weather injuries at the clinic. 

“Heels get cracked. Fingers get cracked. Lips get cracked. They are deep cracks that are now exposed to infection, which sets in quite fast for a lot of our folks,” explained Carly. 

Skin cracks can allow in bacteria, which can lead to infection, which can lead to several health-related issues that if not treated could be deadly.   

“We can’t continue to just treat it, it is a bandaid. If we can’t warm them up, we can’t protect them.”

Outreach workers with Turning Points, along with other partnering organizations, routinely check in on the sites where community members are known to be sleeping rough.

These outreach workers will often bring items to help warm up these community members, whether that is a hot beverage or hand and foot warmers.

If needed, these outreach teams will provide basic medical treatment.     

Individuals with more complex health concerns are encouraged to seek medical treatment.

If you suspect somebody needs medical attention, you can try to direct them to the Cammy LaFleur Street Outreach Clinic at 2800, 33 Street, or the Vernon Downtown Primary Care Centre at 3306A 32nd Avenue.  

The Cammy LaFleur Street Outreach Clinic is open from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. Monday to Friday. 

The Vernon  Downtown Primary Care Centre is open from 9:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. seven days a week.

The Cammy LaFleur Street Outreach a community program under Turning Points Collaborative Society.