Candlelight vigil planned for International Overdose Awareness Day
Note: This article, written by Liz Whynott, originally appeared in a Hampshire Gazette column on August 21, 2017.
After urging by U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts and others on the front lines of the opioid epidemic, President Donald Trump has declared the crisis a national public health emergency.
With reports that 91 people die per day from an opioid overdose in our country, that declaration and call to action was warranted. It’s also timely as we approach the local commemoration of International Overdose Awareness Day Aug. 31.
As Director of HIV Health and Prevention programs at Tapestry, I’ve helped to organize and participated in overdose vigils these past four years. For me these occasions are both a grim reminder of the toll this epidemic has taken and a clear call to enact a tireless public health approach that is equal parts compassionate and evidence.
As Massachusetts struggles with some of the highest rates of opioid-related deaths in the country, residents must continue to work together in this crisis. Statewide, there were 1,793 opioid overdose deaths in 2015 and 2,069 in 2016 with a total death toll since 2000 at 13,818.
Locally, the numbers are equally harrowing: In Hampshire County there were 16 opioid overdose deaths in 2015 and 34 in 2016 — a 75 percent increase. The Hampshire County total since 2000 is 222.
Syringe access and disposal programs like the one Tapestry has operated since 1995 are vital to a successful response to the opioid overdose epidemic. Tapestry opened the first site in Northampton in 1995 and a second one in Holyoke in 2012. In February, it opened a site in North Adams and has been approved to open another in Greenfield.
At each of these locations, Tapestry staff build non-judgmental relationships with clients that can offer a gateway to medical services and lifesaving education, including how to prevent HIV and hepatitis C infections. The fact that we’ve opened new syringe access and disposal sites this year is evidence of the scope of the problem. It is also an indication of greater community awareness and more enlightened public officials who see syringe access programs as integral to a proper response to this epidemic.
Syringe access programs provide people at risk for witnessing an overdose with education on how to avoid, recognize and reverse an overdose with Narcan. They offer education about fentanyl and other dangerous drugs in heroin, critical information that can help reduce deaths.
In the last fiscal year, our staff worked with over 3,700 individuals at our Northampton and Holyoke sites and those numbers will only increase now that we have added two new sites in our region. For many of the people we serve, our sites are the first place they receive medical care.
While getting people into treatment is a good outcome, it is not — and cannot be — our only goal. Our foremost goal is to keep people alive. We do this by preventing transmission of deadly viruses including HIV and hepatitis C and others that could lead to serious health issues. We also teach people how to intervene in case of overdose.
Because of the stigma and isolation people feel, hiding drug use is common. That means trusting relationships between Tapestry staff and clients are critical to keeping people alive and improving their health. According to a 2010 study in the “Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment,” safe syringe access increases the likelihood that someone will enter a recovery program by a factor of five. Also according to that study, clients engaged in care at a syringe access and disposal program are more likely to seek treatment not only for their substance use disorder, but for other health conditions that might land them in the hospital if left untreated. My own experience working in this field has underscored these points.
On many fronts, there has been tremendous progress in our approach to the opioid epidemic. As more people see opioid use as a public health problem instead of a criminal one, reactions based on misconceptions give way to initiatives based on solid public health theory. In July of 2016, the state law was amended to give municipal boards of health authority over syringe access programs; an important development because it meant decisions about public health would be made by public health professionals, not politicians. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled that local government approval is not required to operate a private needle exchange programs and that municipalities cannot bar such programs.
The declaration of emergency at the national level continues the progress we have seen in our state. But our foe is formidable. Overdoses now account for more than 50 percent of the deaths of people under 50 in the country, according to a New York Times report. This is dire; a generation is being decimated in part because of the stigma of substance use that blocks access to life-saving care like Narcan and unused syringes. These deaths fracture families and communities.
Because of the work I do — and my own history of heroin use, which I disclosed in this newspaper a little over a year ago — I’ve experienced the impact that stigma can have on users, their friends and family. I know that stigma leads to isolation and shame. And this can lead to death. At the Aug. 31 vigil, we will honor those who have died as a result of this epidemic.
This work can be very difficult at times. But here’s why I do it: It’s great when we help someone get into treatment and on a path to recovery. But whether someone is in long-term recovery, struggling with a relapse, or is not ready to access treatment, every life has value.
All are welcome at the candlelight vigil on International Overdose Awareness Day, Aug. 31 at 6 p.m. at the First Churches in downtown Northampton. Join us to fight against stigma, connect with people who need care, and support the families and loved ones of people who have lost someone to an overdose.
Liz Whynott is director of HIV health and prevention programs at Tapestry and part of Hampshire HOPE, the opioid prevention coalition run through the city of Northampton’s health department. Members of Hampshire HOPE contribute to this monthly column about local efforts to address the opioid epidemic.