County’s opioid task force takes stock two years on

  • In this Feb. 19, 2014, file photo, a small bottle of the opiate overdose treatment drug, Naloxone, also known by its brand name Narcan, is displayed at the South Jersey AIDS Alliance in Atlantic City, N.J. It is becoming easier for friends and family of heroin users or patients abusing strong prescription painkillers to get access to Naloxone, a powerful, life-saving antidote. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)

Staff Writer
Thursday, March 09, 2017

HADLEY — Public health experts, government officials and concerned citizens alike are still trying to combat an opioid epidemic that continues to ravage communities across the country.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 91 Americans die daily from an opioid overdose. In Northampton, the city saw an average of one overdose a week last year, according to police.

It’s against that grim backdrop that more than 60 people gathered at the Hadley Farms Meeting House Tuesday for the quarterly meeting of Hampshire HOPE, the county’s opioid abuse prevention coalition.

Members came together to look back on the group’s two-year existence, and to talk about what has worked. The attendees reflected on the broad swath of society working to combat the epidemic: educators, law enforcement officers, health care providers, municipal leaders, recovery coaches and needle exchange workers, among others.

During an icebreaker activity, Christopher Hopewell, EMS administrator at Cooley Dickinson Health Care’s emergency department, talked about the value of the knowledge local leaders can gain and share as part of Hampshire HOPE.

“Being able to say, ‘I know how to help,’ being able to say it’s there is huge,” Hopewell said. For emergency rooms at Cooley Dickinson, that help includes on-site recovery coaches for overdose victims.

And it’s not just the health care field that has benefited. As part of the coalition’s work, law enforcement agencies have sought to employ less disciplinary measures with drug users.

Wanda Rolon, a case manager at the Hampshire County Sheriff’s Office, is part of a prerelease program at the county jail that prepares inmates to stay off opioids.

“They feel like they don’t belong in society because of all that stigma,” she said of drug users preparing for life on the outside. But the program aims to change that perception.

When an inmate is a month or two from being released, jail officials meet with them. They get pastries and coffee, and talk about potential treatments, counseling, services and strategies to help them stay clean.

The Northampton Police Department is also part of the coalition. They’ve formed a Drug Use Response Team that reaches out to overdose victims directly and offers information and sometimes even a ride to a recovery facility.

And when overdose victims are given the lifesaving opioid-blocking drug Narcan, police have begun taking some of these victims directly to a hospital to be monitored under so-called “protective custody.”

“We’re at the front lines, we’re the first responders,” sid Justin Hooten, a Northampton police officer. “We’ve had some success with the program,” though he admitted that when in uniform, it’s difficult to convince overdose victims that they have good intentions.

And Dan Carey is the director of the Drug Diversion and Treatment program at the Northwestern district attorney’s office, which aims to reach nonviolent, low-level drug offenders when they first enter the court system, and keep them out of the criminal justice system.

“It’s treatment in lieu of prosecution, really,” he said. “The DA likes to call it ‘treatment on demand.’”

Focus on harm reduction

For Hampshire HOPE’s program coordinator Cherry Sullivan, it’s efforts like these, as well as needle exchange and overdose prevention programs, that are the future of the coalition’s work.

“I think for the next two years, we need to focus in on harm reduction,” she said. “It will continue to allow us to build relationships with people who are using, and to be non-punitive.”

And it’s in that spirit that the group met on Tuesday to listen to harm reduction advocates Gary Langis of Educational Development Center and MassTAPP, who runs state-funded overdose prevention and Narcan programs, and Mary Wheeler of Health Innovations Inc., a public health advocate and educator for needle exchange programs across the state.

“Harm reduction merely helps to reduce the consequences of harmful behavior,” Wheeler said. “We value any positive change.”

For some, she said, that change might be treatment and a shot at sobriety. For others, it may be a cup of ramen noodles and a ride to a needle exchange.

Langis told the story of when he and Wheeler saw 30 overdoses — 10 fatal — in just a week in Lynn, Massachusetts.

But instead of just vaguely telling users that there was a “bad batch” of heroin on the street, they got a sample of the drug, brought it to police for testing and determined that it was 95 percent pure, Langis explained.

With that information, they were able to help users stay informed about their own drug use, and gave them realistic advice to avoid possible death — to use a quarter of a bag of heroin, for example, instead of a full bag, he said.

For many of the advocates in the room, this kind of work is more important than ever.

As she finished her presentation, Wheeler talked about the state’s growing hepatitis C and HIV and AIDS infection rates. She said after 17 years working in needle exchanges to reduce risk of infection, she only recently saw her first client receive a positive HIV diagnosis.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.