Working quietly behind scenes, Norwich task force tackles opioid crisis

Norwich — For more than a year, members of health and law enforcement agencies — private, governmental and nonprofit — have been meeting behind the scenes, working to streamline the city’s approach to the burgeoning opioid epidemic.

Recently, the group, known as the Norwich Heroin Task Force, compiled a list of all it has accomplished, in part to show local and state elected officials that it exists and is willing to help them lobby for relevant legislation.

Since its first meeting in June 2015, the task force has given presentations using available data about the epidemic, re-educated the community about the prescription take-back drop box at the Norwich Police Department and hosted community forums and community conversations.

Many of its members have gone through training on how to use Narcan and are able to distribute kits and explain the process to those who need to learn.

Coordination among those performing mobile outreach — or those who go to The William W. Backus Hospital and tell people who’ve overdosed what steps they can take — has increased.

And, each day, an email list of available treatment beds is shared among the group so members who encounter people looking to get into a recovery program can point them in the right direction.

“The goals are to see what’s happening locally with opioid addiction, see what other communities are doing about it and share information and best practices about how to help combat this issue,” said Lee-Ann Gomes, task force member and director of Norwich Human Services.

According to data released by the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Norwich had nine drug overdose deaths — eight of which involved opioids — in the first three months of 2016.

If that rate holds steady, Norwich would have 36 drug overdose deaths by the year’s end — an almost 112 percent increase from the 17 such deaths that occurred here in 2015.

The task force, which doesn’t have a set meeting time, takes time between meetings to work in subcommittees, Gomes explained.

But when the group does meet in full, as it did July 19, members go around the table, discussing what they’ve seen and learned in the last couple of months and what steps they think should be taken next.

On July 19, 50 people — including representatives of American Ambulance, St. Vincent de Paul Place, Thames Valley Council for Community Action, Generations Family Health Center, Norwich police, Southeastern Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and many more — were present.

By the time they got around the table, they learned that there had been four opioid-related overdose deaths in the Norwich area within the past month.

“It’s a big topic, and everybody has their niche they can fit in to,” Gomes said of why there are subcommittees and why so many groups are involved. “It’s not one thing that will cure or fix opioid addiction.”

Going forward, Gomes said the task force is going to continue encouraging local health care providers to offer medications that help recovering addicts manage their opioid dependence.

She said Catholic Charities of Norwich has committed to providing Suboxone — a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone that provides pain relief and mild euphoria while minimizing cravings — in the fall, and Reliance House is looking at offering naltrexone, which is an opiate antagonist that decreases one’s desire to take opiates.

It’s the task force’s attempt to make a dent in the gap in care that many face when they’ve finished detoxification but have to wait weeks before a treatment facility bed opens up.

“The problem is you have five days in detox, then have to wait six weeks to get into treatment,” Gomes explained. “What do you do during that time to not relapse or go backward?”

Norwich Youth and Family Services, another task force member agency, is hoping to learn in the coming months that it’s been selected for new state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services grant money that would help it address underage drinking and drug use.

According to Gomes, the money, not designated for a specific program, would allow Youth and Family Services to expand the reach of its existing programs and employ a peer mentor to work with area youth.

Gomes said another thing the task force is exploring is finding a way to add information about prescription drug take-back drop boxes on medication labels.

“Everybody you talk to has a different story about someone they know who’s been affected by this epidemic,” she said. “We’re just trying to keep a finger on it.”

Subcommittees will meet in August and the task force will reconvene as a whole in September.

A date for that meeting hasn’t yet been set, Gomes said, but she encouraged those interested in joining the group to reach out to her at lgomes@cityofnorwich.org.

“We don’t advertise our meetings or anything,” Gomes said. “But if people want to get on our mailing list, we could use all the help we can get.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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