First responders talk scope of opioid epidemic

Fire Capt. Chris Belcher

First responders talk scope of opioid epidemic
July 06
03:00 2017

The scope of the opioid epidemic and what can be done about it, including needle exchanges and a suggestion for a cross-agency opioid task force, were discussed at a forum at Green Street United Methodist Church last week.

Southern states have been hard hit in the opioid crisis, said Twin City Harm Reduction Collective’s Colin Miller, who runs a needle and syringe exchange at the church.

According to a 2016 study, North Carolina has four out of the top 25 cities in the country for opioid abuse, including Wilmington, which was Number One.

Miller’s program at the church collects used needles and syringes in exchange for clean ones and gives out Narcan, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses. He also informs addicts about the health risks they face and gives them information on how to get into rehabilitation. He said the exchange, which began in December, has distributed 15,745 clean syringes, collected 7,988 dirty syringes, and given out 317 Narcan kits that resulted in 55 overdose reversals. He said 22 users have gone into treatment after visiting the exchange.

“It’s a whole lot of people, and we are just scratching the surface,” said Miller.

Some neighbors have had concerns about possible effects the exchange might have on the neighborhood. Miller said that studies have found that exchanges actually decrease drug use, crime and improperly discarded syringes. He said addicts tend to respect exchanges so they don’t cause trouble near them. He said most people who use the church’s exchange are “stable” users with jobs and cars. He does distribute needles outside the church, to homeless communities and drug houses as well.

He said exchanges don’t encourage the behavior, but can save the lives of those trapped in addiction. Addicts don’t think rationally, something he knows first hand, since he was one for years. He said he’d use and reuse dirty needles and use water from toilets for injections if he had to. An addict might use one needle for months, using sandpaper or grinding it against concrete to sharpen it once it gets dull. He credited exchanges for saving him from disease and encouraging him to seek help.

Members of the Winston-Salem Police Department (WSPD), Forsyth County Emergency Medical Services and Winston-Salem Fire Department (WSFD) were present and said the problem of opioid overdoes has grown exponentially. Fire Capt. Chris Belcher said he used to give Narcan once a year, but now fire crews use it on an average of 15-20 times a month.

WSPD Lt. William Penn Jr. emphasized that multiple agencies need to work together with a focus on rehabilitating addicts and stopping dealers.

“Winston-Salem Police Department’s focus is taking care of the supply side of it,” he said. “We are not targeting users.”

EMS Quality Assurance Coordinator Tara Tucker said it’s going to take cross-agency cooperation and innovative solutions to tackle the problem.

“You’re not going to arrest your way out of this problem,” said Tucker.

Brent Motsinger said community paramedics like him try to take a more in-depth approach with patients than traditional EMS paramedics. He said he explains what just happened to people who overdose and how they can get help. He said he’s facilitated treatment options to a variety of people, including a 70 year-old woman and a mother about to give birth.

“We see it in the nice part of town and in the not-so-nice part of town,” said Motsinger. “It does not discriminate.”

Motsinger said a change in suppliers, who might mix heroine with the potent opioid fentanyl, can prove deadly. He said recently they responded to 23 overdoses in one day.

Forsyth County Health Department Director Marlon Hunter suggested that there should be a task force with representatives of the WSPD, WSFD, EMS, Sheriff’s Office, Health Department, Harm Reduction Collective and mental health services that meets on a weekly basis to work collaboratively on the crisis.

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Todd Luck

Todd Luck

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