Ohio's overdose response team seeing successes

The city hit the national spotlight Aug. 15 when 28 people overdosed within four hours

By Wendy Holdren
The Register-Herald

COLERAIN TOWNSHIP, Ohio — Colerain Township Public Safety Director Daniel Meloy, who spent 25 years in law enforcement, saw a transition around 2009 in his town from cocaine and LSD to prescription pills and heroin.

The Ohio township, with a population of 60,000, had 41 opioid-specific overdoses in 2011. The following year, the township saw 115 overdoses — a 125 percent increase.

Sometimes as a law enforcement officer, being so close to the problem every day, he said it was difficult to grasp the true depth and immensity of it.

But when he took over as director of public safety in 2014, he was forced to look at the issue with a wider lens.

"I had no clue the significance of the problem on such a greater scale. It drove us to look at this thing a little harder."

Early on, he learned overdose patients weren't receiving a lot of addiction resources from area hospitals after they were treated.

After brainstorming some solutions, the town partnered with the Community Recovery Project to create informational packets with resources, so first responders could distribute them at overdose calls.

Starting in August 2014, hundreds of informational packets were distributed. But Meloy decided that wasn't enough.

He thought, "What if I put a police officer, a firefighter and a paramedic with someone who knows what they're doing (an addiction counselor), to proactively address overdose families and victims?"

He approached his friend, a firefighter who had become addicted to painkillers, to gauge his reaction.

"He said he couldn't fathom what it would have meant in his life if someone he looked up to came to his house and said, 'I care about you. I want you to get well, and we're going to be here for you.'"

Meloy decided, "We're going to do it." He didn't know if it was going to work, but he was going to give it a try.

"We don't have to wait for them to call," Meloy said. "We go to them."

They canvassed neighborhoods and distributed brochures with information about resources and an addiction services hotline. Cincinnati's Addiction Services Council offered counselors to participate in the quick response team.

And when the team started doing follow-ups for the overdose calls, the results were astounding. Of the 270 follow-ups so far, 80 percent of the overdose victims have enrolled in treatment.

"If we get to you within three to five days of overdose, eight out of 10 will get into treatment."

Sometimes those who are suffering from addiction get into treatment that day. Sometimes, it takes few weeks.

"But we stay with you so you're not alone. We're connecting you with a resource for help. We're here to care about you. We're here because you died yesterday and we want to help. We want to let you know we give a damn."

Although Colerain ended 2016 with 197 overdoses, 20 more than the year before, Meloy believes the efforts of their response team are working. He attributed the spike in overdoses to carfentanil, which hit the area in September.

Without the stats from that month, the township saw a more than 8 percent reduction.

Meloy and his team recently shared their plan of action with the City of Huntington, where more than 1,400 overdoses were recorded in 2016.

"Their numbers are off the charts," Meloy said.

The city hit the national spotlight Aug. 15 when 28 people overdosed within four hours. Twenty-six of them were saved.

According to a report in The Herald-Dispatch, Director of the Huntington Mayor's Office of Drug Control Policy Jim Johnson plans to incorporate the quick response team as their next attack on the opioid epidemic.

Meloy said his team has shared its plan with other communities in Ohio, as well as Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and even Texas. Cost is a concern for many cities, but ultimately, Meloy believes the benefits outweigh the financial burden.

The proactive initiative costs the township roughly $35,000 per year to staff — one day per week, eight hours per day, 52 weeks per year. Funding has been a challenge, but Meloy believes in what they're doing. He's seeing overdose survivors return to their lives as fathers, sons, mothers, daughters and workers.

"It doesn't change overnight, but it's important to do what's best for the community — reduce harm, reduce overdose, reduce secondary victimizations like burglaries. It's our responsibility to the community, to the men and women who work here, to do more than just say, 'It's heroin. I wish it would go away.'"

In 2014, the community of Middletown, another nearby suburb of Cincinnati with a population of 48,000, spent $1.15 million on its heroin response, Meloy said.

"You've got to do something. From medical costs, health care costs, first responder costs, Narcan costs. It's just immense."

He estimates if overdoses are reduced by 1 percent, the program will pay for itself.

"I struggle with budgets being an excuse... If you want to do something, you can do something. If you want to commit to follow up, there's a way to make this work."

Could the City of Beckley ever see such an initiative?

Mayor Rob Rappold told The Register-Herald, "I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility."

In the past several years, with the closure of pill mills and the license revocation of multiple doctors, the number of prescription pills available in Beckley has decreased, Rappold said. Now, the city is seeing an uptick in heroin.

"We are reactive, as opposed to being proactive in that regard at this point," Rappold said, noting the city has equipped its firefighters with naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug.

If someone took the initiative to assemble the entities and organizations needed to form a quick response team, Rappold said he would be supportive. He said he would also support efforts to make more treatment options available in the city.

"We're going to continue the battle, and hopefully be involved in any positive way we can."

As for the law enforcement element, Rappold said he's encouraged by the number of daily arrests for possession with intent to deliver.

"We seem to be making good strides with the Drug Task Force, as far as reducing the number of drugs in circulation."

A few years back, a house in Ohio, just outside of Cincinnati, was burglarized.

The thief took some items that were replaceable, but he escaped with one item that was not — a mother's locket filled with the ashes of her deceased child.

"Our detectives tried everything," Meloy said. "They were hell-bent on finding it."

Unfortunately, the locket was not recovered. But the thief was arrested. Turns out, he had been stealing to fuel his heroin addiction.

"It's easy to get into that negativity," Meloy admitted. "It jades you. You see families destroyed by it. You see neighborhoods destroyed by it. It frustrates you to no end. You lose that empathetic, caring person you believe you need to be to be good at the police and fire role."

He continued, "You think, 'They don't about themselves, why should I care about them?' But before this all happened, there was probably a pretty good person."

Meloy realized in 2014 a change of culture was needed in the local police and fire departments.

"They were burned out of the fallout from victimization and crime associated with this lifestyle," he said. "But we needed to better understand this lifestyle, their background, where these victims are coming from."

Many attitudes were changed when they met someone from their own ranks — a firefighter — who had developed an addiction to prescription painkillers.

Meloy said the man had fallen from a ladder and broken his back. He was prescribed narcotics and became addicted. His life was a downward spiral after that.

"We thought, 'He's like us. That could be us.' It allowed our guys to see a little bit differently."

They learned more about the brain chemistry that can lead to addiction. They learned more about the situations that can cause someone to turn to substances. They realized, "It could be me. It could be my son. It could be my daughter."

Copyright 2017 The Register-Herald

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