Firefighters hope to follow up with those who overdose in New London

New London first responders carry the victim of an apparent overdose on the grounds of the Old Towne Mill on Mill Street to a waiting ambulance July 7, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
New London first responders carry the victim of an apparent overdose on the grounds of the Old Towne Mill on Mill Street to a waiting ambulance July 7, 2016. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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New London — City officials have applied for a two-year, $75,000 federal grant that would allow firefighters and recovery navigators to follow up with each person who overdoses in New London.

While police or private ambulance companies administer the overdose-reversal drug naloxone in other cities, only firefighters do so in New London.

At the request of the Opioid Action Team of Southeastern Connecticut, firefighters this fall began giving overdose patients — and sometimes their friends and relatives — cards that detail how to reach the recovery navigators.

The two navigators sometimes literally help people navigate the complex process of getting treatment. Other times they explain safer ways to use, such as through the Alliance for Living's syringe exchange program.

Both part-time positions are funded by a separate federal grant that Ledge Light Health District oversees on behalf of the Opioid Action Team.

“We have gotten calls and follow-ups from people the fire department provided care for, so it’s working,” said Jennifer Muggeo, supervisor of administration, finance and special projects for Ledge Light.

The navigators — Trisha Rios, who is in recovery, and Mark Peake, who is a counselor with the Southeastern Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence — have been meeting people in greater New London since April.

Muggeo said they have contacted 144 people, 76 of whom now are in treatment.

The navigators also have met members of each firefighting shift, fire Chief Tom Curcio said.

Curcio said he was on board as soon as Muggeo and Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein approached him about the partnership, which also included training firefighters on how to avoid stigmatizing language and about medication-assisted treatment, or the practice of combining therapy with withdrawal-mitigating medications such as Suboxone.

"I think the frustration lies in not knowing how a lot of our patients turn out," Curcio said. "We go, we revive them, we bring them to the hospital and then we don't know how they're doing unless we happen to pick them up again."

While the opposite is true for those who struggle with alcohol addiction, Curcio said many opioid overdose patients are not "repeat transports."

"That can be wearing, too," he said. "With the opioids, it's just nonstop. It's different people all the time, over all ages."

State data show seven fatal overdoses happened in New London in the first half of this year. Information about how many overdoses the city sees daily wasn't immediately available.

The state Department of Public Health said The William W. Backus and Lawrence + Memorial hospitals together saw a total of about 60 overdose visits per month this spring. More recent data wasn't available and neither was a breakdown of numbers by hospital.

Curcio said he met with union officials and the city attorney to ensure following up with overdose patients wouldn't violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

Given the all clear, he brought the idea back to the firefighters, who "welcomed it with open arms."

"When our guys respond to a fire or a related call, you see the outcome," Curcio said. "You know what happens. You put the fire out. You saved the property. You can see the property on Squire Street being rebuilt."

"But we don't know with these types of calls," he said. "So I think this is going to be great."

The state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, or DMHAS, is charged with handing out the federal State Opioid Response grant money New London officials are seeking.

In its request for proposals, DMHAS said community groups could apply for the money, which should be used to send people to the homes of overdose survivors and others struggling with opioid addiction.

DMHAS plans to award eight grants and said it will prioritize proposals from 11 cities, including New London and Norwich, as well as towns along the Interstate 95 corridor.

Muggeo said DMHAS should announce the winners by the end of the year.

“We’re hopeful that the funding will come through,” she said. "We're continually looking for opportunities to enhance what we do."

l.boyle@theday.com

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