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Coronavirus pandemic worsened the opioid crisis; a new law is designed to help

After the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the opioid crisis nationwide, a new Connecticut law is designed to connect people with substance use disorders to helpful resources — and it's modeled after an initiative that launched in New London.

In Connecticut, the rate of drug overdose deaths increased by 15% in 2020 — 1,373 people died of an overdose in the state last year, compared to 1,196 in 2019. Though the rate rose a bit less in 2020 than it did in 2019 — when it climbed 17% from the year before — it was still the deadliest year Connecticut has seen yet, according to state data.

The new law, signed by Gov. Ned Lamont on Tuesday, will establish a series of pilot programs in five not yet identified communities to assist people with substance use disorders through the use of "peer navigators."

Navigators — people who have lived with substance use disorders themselves — will do community outreach to connect people who are using opioids to resources for things like housing, medical treatment, social services and counseling. In New London, navigators have been fighting the opioid crisis for years; Alliance for Living, a New London-based nonprofit, launched the area's first navigator program in 2018.

What makes the program different and work so well, said Carol Jones, director of harm reduction at Alliance for Living, is that navigators don't mandate treatment. And they know just what it's like to be in the shoes of the person they're trying to support.

"We approach people with support and develop relationships. We listen to people without judging and we aren't stigmatizing people more than they already are or telling them what they need to do. We're following their lead and just telling them we want them to be safe," she said.

Navigators treat each person with a holistic approach, making sure all their basic needs are met, whether or not they plan to stop using opioids right away.

The legislation to bring navigators to other communities was introduced by state Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, who said she's looking forward to expanding New London's model to help even more state residents.

In Hartford, the legislation received unanimous, bipartisan support in both the state House of Representatives and Senate, with all of southeastern Connecticut's legislators who voted for it were in favor.

Vulnerable people at risk

According to the law, the programs will start by Jan. 1, 2022, and each pilot will have at least two peer navigators who will build connections between residents with substance use disorders and treatment, health care and social service providers; address systemic barriers; and increase community support.

They come at a time when more Americans than ever may be struggling with opioid use following the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Dr. Paul Christo, an associate professor and pain specialist at Johns Hopkins University. Across the country, he said, the pandemic caused hardship and trauma for millions of Americans, leading more and more people to turn — or return — to opioids.

Christo said "vulnerable people who are at a vulnerable time in their lives" are particularly susceptible, "and we've had a lot of vulnerable people during the pandemic." The isolation, job loss and overall stress of the pandemic, he said, have hit people in two main areas: financially and emotionally.

"Economically ... we've seen underemployment, unemployment, that's led to people turning toward these mind-altering substances to cope," he said. "And at the same time, we've seen a lot of emotional trauma during the pandemic, people are seeing loved ones die, be hospitalized, be near death. So, many people have turned toward these substances to cope. There's been a real disruption of coping skills for a lot of people during the pandemic, it's all about coping."

These issues aren't just impacting people with substance use orders who were actively using at the start of the pandemic.

"I think we're seeing two groups of people being impacted," Christo said. "There are those that have been in recovery and two have relapsed because of the pandemic. And we're seeing new groups of people who have never had a substance use disorder using these drugs to cope during a vulnerable, uncertain time."

Christo said that the key to helping people struggling with substance use disorder is connection — connecting them to resources, support systems, treatment programs, medical providers and counseling services — and making those things accessible through state and federal funding.

Jeanne Milstein, director of human services for New London, said she is proud of the city's navigators for doing work that can now help people elsewhere. "I'm really excited and so grateful to the navigators, it's really their work that is making us a model to the state," she said. "And we are hoping that we can save and restore more lives using this method."

She believes that what makes their model different is exactly what Christo said is a key component: "It's really about connecting and engaging with people," she said.

Connection is what navigators have been establishing in New London, then across the region, and soon, throughout the state. For Jones, too, it's the most important thing.

"I always say the opposite of addiction is connection; if you have connection to things, it helps you to know that you matter," Jones said.

She said a key part of the navigator program is the fact that it is peer led. Every navigator has their own lived experience with substance disorder and can relate to the challenges faced by the people they're helping.

Though they've seen success here, they know there are still many people that need help. "We know that we do good work but we also know that people are still dying and people are still overdosing," Jones said.

Plans are in place to expand the navigator program in New London, too.

The city has allocated funding for a new program, set to launch in the fall, that will be run by a community-based organization or nonprofit. It will be a public safety and mental health initiative where navigators will work with individuals with mental health issues who have been involved in police interactions. The goal is to reduce the number of police interactions, Milstein said.

She said the initiative has been a collaborative effort, with inspiration drawn from Alliance for Living and similar programs in other cities.

She hopes that someday this new program can also be a model for the state, too, and that New London can continue to be at the forefront of fighting the opioid crisis and reducing the stigmas around substance use disorder and mental illnesses.

t.hartz@theday.com

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