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Uncas Health District focuses on prevention, safety to reduce drug addiction

Norwich — A pile of small, resealable black pouches placed on the lobby counter in the Norwich police station evoke curiosity.

“Got Drugs?” the white sticker attached to each pouch says. The Deterra brand pouch contains a small, round drug deactivation material for safe disposal of small amounts of either pills or liquid pharmaceuticals. The label carries the Uncas Health District's name, its logo and "Change the Script."

Uncas Health District received a five-year grant two years ago from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services for outreach and health and safety efforts to reduce opioid addition in a nonthreatening and nonjudgmental way, health district officials said.

“Change the Script is a statewide public awareness campaign to help communities deal with the prescription drug and opioids misuse crisis,” the DMHAS website explains. “It connects town leaders, (health care) professionals, treatment professionals and everyday people with the resources they need to face prescription opioid misuse — and write a new story about what we can accomplish when we all work toward a shared goal.”

Brittany Grabill, grant-funded project coordinator for the health district’s Change the Script program, has been tracking overdose statistics in the 11-town health district and trying to bring services and information to high-risk neighborhoods and anticipate the next “spike" of potential overdoses.

Grabill placed the drug deactivation pouches recently at the Norwich police station, Norwich Housing Authority and some were given to the ShopRite pharmacy in Norwich. Grabill plans to approach senior centers and other possible distribution points.

Unlike drug take-back receptacles at police stations, which only accept dry materials, the pouches can neutralize liquids as well as pills and patches. When mixed with water, the deactivation material neutralizes the drugs and the resealed pouch can be tossed in regular trash cans.

Uncas Health District also started a syringe services program at its office in the Campbell Building at the Route 32 Uncas on the Thames campus. Participants can exchange clean syringes for used ones and also receive fentanyl testing strips, which warn drug users when deadly fentanyl is present. Grabill said users can take precautions to make sure a friend is with them or reduce the dosage to try to avoid overdose.

Along with the syringe exchange, the district provides alcohol sanitizing pads, Vitamin C, which helps to break down drugs to reduce vein damage, and wound care kits. The district also provides information on drug treatment programs available. From July 1, 2019, through Jan. 2, 2020, the program has distributed 1,650 needles and 40% of those using the program are repeat clients, officials said. Two people have sought medication-assisted recovery treatment, Uncas Health District Director Patrick McCormack said.

Uncas Health District also received a $108,000 grant from Gilead Sciences Inc. to educate drug users and the general public about hepatitis C, a curable disease transmitted through blood contact — such as through sharing needles, snorting objects or even razors, toothbrushes or nail clippers.

Emily Semmelrock, Uncas community outreach coordinator for the Gilead grant, said the effort is to prevent the spread and to locate people who might be infected but have “fallen through the cracks” of detection and treatment. “It’s a lot of mining data,” she said. Semmelrock is tracking about 50 clients throughout the health district region.

Without knowing it at first, Uncas Health District had launched an approach now called harm reduction. The health district recently joined the national Harm Reduction Coalition, “a national advocacy and capacity-building organization that works to promote the health and dignity of individuals and communities who are impacted by drug use,” the group’s website states.

“The concept is harm reduction,” McCormack said. “When people we know are using, how can we help them be as safe as possible and be nonjudgmental? We’re willing to work with them when they are ready to accept the care services provided and connect them with treatment services.”

c.bessette@theday.com

Uncas Health District harm reduction programs

The Uncas Health District serves the towns of: Bozrah, Franklin, Griswold, Lebanon, Lisbon, Montville, Norwich, Preston, Salem, Sprague and Voluntown.

The district is using grant funds to promote safe disposal of unused prescription drugs and offers syringe exchanges and safe practices materials and assistance in finding recovery treatment.

For information, call the health district at (860) 823-1189.

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