WILMINGTON — A small staff will receive a large source of funding to continue engaging with opioid overdose survivors. On average a dozen individuals monthly are encouraged to receive opioid treatment — who otherwise might have refused — through the city’s Cape Fear Opioid Overdose Quick Response Team.
Started in 2018 as a two-year pilot program, the Quick Response Team, housed in Coastal Horizons, will receive $750,000 from the city through the state budget. The money comes through a North Carolina State Direct Grant, awarded by the Department of Public Safety for innovative programs in drug control and system improvement, among other areas. City council will vote Tuesday on approving a resolution and ordinance to allocate the funds.
“We know after someone overdoses, there is a small window of time where someone might say, ‘I need to make a change in my life,’” outpatient counselor and QRT supervisor Buffy Taylor said. “Our job is to seize that time to really help someone get connected to treatment they need.”
The QRT operates in Wilmington to engage overdose survivors, those who are at high risk of overdose and those close to them, “helping them to be safer, supported and ultimately connected to recovery resources,” city spokesperson Jennifer Dandron explained.
She added the QRT program’s annual budget is $250,000, so the extra money will allow the program to expand and function for at least the next two years.
In 2020, nine North Carolinians died each day from a drug overdose. A preliminary report from the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner shows a preliminary estimate of a 22% increase in opioid overdose emergency department visits last year. In New Hanover County, there were 17 reported opioid overdose emergency department visits in February. (Complete data for 2021 county-specific opioid stats are not yet available.)
“We know the overdose epidemic has not gone anywhere,” Taylor said. “The need for treatment and the quick response team is still here.”
The QRT was formed as a call to the community’s opioid epidemic and its main goal is to reduce the incidences of repeat overdoses in Wilmington and New Hanover County, and increase overdose survivors entering recovery and treatment.
Since its inception, the QRT has met with 706 people and connected 608 to treatment. That equals an 86% engagement rate, which fiscal year 2022 is on par to meet. So far, the QRT has met with 160 people, connecting 133 to treatment, at an 83% engagement rate.
The program mirrors Colerain, Ohio’s model, which created a network of law enforcement, emergency responders and healthcare workers to visit every overdose victim within 72 hours for an overview of their treatment options. When Colerain officials visited Wilmington in 2018, they said repeat overdoses reduced by one-third, following the initiation of its Quick Response Team.
The Cape Fear version of this is centered around the use of clinicians and peer support specialists to work with overdose survivors and be their liaison to treatment options.
The peer support specialists have lived experience with substance use or mental health issues and can act as a mentor who can relate. Taylor said after brainstorming with substance use experts and law enforcement, the team agreed having someone who made significant changes in their life with recovery would “make the truest connection.”
The QRT currently pays three clinicians and two peer support specialists; with the extra funding, Taylor hopes to increase the number of personnel. She also wants to branch out to Brunswick and Pender counties.
“This will really help our team move forward and beef us up a bit,” Taylor said.
Community partners — such as local law enforcement, paramedics, hospitals or even friends and family — identify individuals for QRT to work with, she added. From there, QRT members reach out to overdose survivors to find out how they can help.
“We see what’s working and what’s not working and figure out the best course of action and walk them through those stages until they’re ready for treatment,” Taylor explained. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”
She added it can result in a lot of handholding and gaining trust until someone is ready to take the leap toward recovery. On average QRT members engage with an individual two or three times before connecting them with treatment options, and it can take up to a couple months for an overdose survivor to decide on next steps.
Taylor said the QRT works to make treatment accessible, including visits with individuals where it’s convenient for them: “We come to you.”
Identifying barriers to treatment is part of the process, including financials. Taylor said it could cost up to $2,000 per month for an individual, but QRT helps find state funding or scholarships through Coastal Horizons to cover the expense. Treatment options also vary from long-term inpatient facilities across the state to short-term treatment centers and outpatient services with medicated-assisted treatment right in Wilmington.
“The biggest thing is this population of people, friends, community members, neighbors, otherwise just wouldn’t have access to these services,” Taylor explained, “they could be overlooked or think treatment is not for them.”
While the QRT averages interactions with 13 people per month, Taylor said it is not uncommon to be working with up to 25 individuals at once.
In September 2021, the city granted $100,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to Coastal Horizons for the QRT, as overdose rates sky-rocketed during the pandemic. The city also allocated $100,111 to Coastal Horizon in its fiscal year 2022 budget.
A three-year lawsuit ended last year in a settlement with three major pharmaceutical companies. The settlement funds will be distributed nationwide, including $18 million to New Hanover County and $769,823 to the City of Wilmington. Payments will be made over 18 years with the first set to be dispersed this spring. Funds must be used to support treatment, recovery, harm reduction and other strategies to mitigate the opioid epidemic.
County spokesperson Jessica Loeper explained the county is organizing a working group with community partners and experts to develop a strategy for utilizing the settlement funds to help residents suffering from mental health and substance use disorders.
Anyone who is struggling with addiction or knows someone in need of help should call the Quick Response Team at 910-833-2052.
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