WILMINGTON — More than two years after its inception, the Opioid Overdose Quick Response Team (QRT), a pilot program established to address the growing opioid abuse in the greater Wilmington area, is reporting successful results. With additional funding, the program will continue for another six months to tackle overdoses from other types of drugs and mitigate impacts from the pandemic.
Several members of the team updated the Wilmington City Council on its progress in a presentation during a Dec. 1 meeting.
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“I think it’s exceeded everyone’s expectations,” said Chuck Bower, a Wilmington Fire Department captain. “I know it certainly has mine.”
Following the death of a 2-year-old in a car wreck caused by a driver under the influence of opioids, and after Wilmington topped a national list of cities hardest hit by the epidemic, the mayor and council organized law enforcement officials, health care and mental health providers, and the legal community to brainstorm solutions to the issue.
In July 2018, the QRT was launched using a $500,000 grant. Its goal was to initiate follow-up care and counseling to individuals who survived an opioid overdose, in hopes of ultimately lowering overdoses and increasing the number of survivors pursuing recovery.
Made up of peer support specialists and licensed therapists, the QRT forms relationships with and connects overdose survivors, people with drug addictions and their close friends and family to treatment and recovery resources. A range of community partners and statewide agencies assist in the effort.
The City of Wilmington recently appropriated $42,000 to the program, which was matched by United Way of the Cape Fear Area and New Hanover County, allowing the team to extend its pilot another half year. Cape Fear Memorial Foundation contributed a grant of $40,000, as well.
Since it began its work, the QRT has connected 330 overdose survivors to treatment, an average of 12.2 people each month.
It costs $1,515 to engage an overdose survivor and connect them to treatment. According to the QRT leaders, that’s a small amount compared to the tens of thousands of dollars that could be spent deploying personnel and equipment to respond to overdoses.
“For every dollar spent on treatment, we’re able to demonstrate saving at least seven dollars in other costs when people are not receiving treatment,” said Kenny House, vice president of clinical services for Coastal Horizons.
In the first fiscal year, the team was able to meet with 159 overdose survivors and connect 128 of them to treatment, an 80% engagement rate. That percentage jumped to 90% in the second fiscal year, when the team connected 179 of 197 overdose survivors to treatment.
Currently in the third fiscal year, the QRT met with 49 overdose survivors between July and September. Thirty-seven were connected to treatment, an engagement rate of 88%.
“We know we have a model that is working and although we have made significant progress, we know that our work is not done,” said Buffy Taylor, team leader of the QRT and a Coastal Horizons therapist.
There have been 10 subsequent overdoses after individuals were connected to treatment and four fatalities throughout the time of the program. The average ages of people who overdose are 24 to 27 and are most commonly females.
QRT is now operating in all areas of New Hanover County, although its established the most presence on the northside of downtown Wilmington. Its outreach is aimed at closing disparity gaps and is increasingly reaching the African American community, according to House.
“We took concentrated efforts to really measure that, look at that, work with partners in the community to make sure that happened,” House said.
Despite all the positive outcomes, the QRT is wary the pandemic could reverse some of its progress.
“We know people who have lost jobs who are in financial distress and social isolation are more triggered to use or relapse,” Taylor said. “We have been able to let people know that treatment is still an option. It’s still available. Quick response team has been out there, still engaging overdose survivors.”
About 60% of all overdoses are “opioid specific,” meaning heroin or other prescription opioids. But the other 40% of drugs causing overdoses “need attention as well,” House said.
QRT is noticing an increase in overdoses from methamphetamine, cocaine, synthetic marijuana and hallucinogen PCP laced with fentanyl.
“This is an opportunity to continue to grow this model, focus on the opioid crisis but also the other drugs that are part of the crisis we’re experiencing in our community,” House said. “And then move forward as an example for others to be able to follow, hopefully.”
House explained Vicodin and OxyContin prescriptions have “died down,” however, as opioid use decreased, the nation saw the abuse of meth and cocaine rise.
The illegal market sometimes adds fentanyl, a powerful opioid, to the drugs. Often, House said, cocaine overdoses are truly caused by opioids because of the way the drug was made.
“It’s getting complicated and then even seeing these other drugs coming to the fore,” House said. “I think the pandemic took some of the progress that was leveling off some of the drug use, and we’ve seen it increase because of increases in depression and anxiety, access and therefore we see some drivers there too.
“I think it’s just been – I don’t want to call it a perfect storm – but an imperfect storm.”
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