More than 35 agencies partner to combat opioid crisis in Conn. city

The partnership, which includes the city fire department, will use $1.3 million in grants to address substance abuse and addiction


Claire Bessette
The Day, New London, Conn.

NORWICH, Conn. — Two city agencies and three dozen partner agencies will use $1.3 million in grants to try to reduce substance abuse among youths, cut the rate of misuse of prescription drugs, identify mental health risks and provide home-based support to people struggling with opioid addiction.

Norwich has one of the highest rates of overdose deaths in the state, with 22 overdose deaths in 2019 through November, officials told the City Council on Monday.

More than three dozen agencies, including the Norwich Fire Department, are working to combat opioid abuse and addiction in the Connecticut city. (Photo/Norwich Fire Department and Emergency Management Facebook)
More than three dozen agencies, including the Norwich Fire Department, are working to combat opioid abuse and addiction in the Connecticut city. (Photo/Norwich Fire Department and Emergency Management Facebook)

Norwich Fire Department Captain Scott Suplita told the council the paid fire department responded to 34 overdose calls in 2018, and the number has jumped to 55 so far in 2019. The department plots the addresses on a GIS mapping system and provides the information to recovery and prevention agencies. Suplita said the city is expanding the address tracking system citywide.

Norwich Human Services Director Lee Ann Gomes and members of the Heroin Task Force reviewed the four grants totaling a combined $1,334,521 over five years and how they are using the funds to try to reach youths with prevention efforts and provide services to people with addictions, especially those with mental illness.

Gomes said staff hired through the grants are totally funded by the grants, including benefits.

The goals of the grants vary, she said. The Partnership for Success grant, totaling $138,094 per year for four years starting in 2016 originally was planned to be used to combat youth alcohol abuse, but she said the focus shifted with evidence that alcohol was less of a problem than use of prescription drugs, depression and suicidal thoughts. The focus now is on non-medical use of prescription drugs and substance abuse combined with mental health issues.

Tiana Powell, Partnership for Success grant peer advisor, said one third of Norwich’s population is under age 25, within the age group for the Partnership for Success grant. In a 2016 survey, one in three youths reported a mental health issue. Studies show youths who reported anxiety, depression or childhood trauma are three times more likely to report recent prescription drug use.

Rayallen Bergman, coordinator for the Partnership for Success grant and the How Can We Help grant — $75,000 per year for two years — said the programs provided training to local businesses and city employees in administering the Narcan opioid overdose reversal drug, created a recovery coaching program to assist people in recovery and expanded the partnership program to include fire departments, ambulance, hospitals and client agencies.

Bergman said the group is working on a mobile needle exchange program and hopes to bring in an expert to discuss vaping issues with local youths.

“We need programs like this to combat this crisis,” Norwich Police Sgt. Anthony Gomes said. “Forming these partnerships, it became very apparent to us as a police officer, we cannot arrest our way out of this problem.”

He said the city’s community policing unit will be critical in working with the grant-funded agencies to work with at-risk youths. He said the Juvenile Review Board has helped in diverting youths from the criminal proceedings into assistance programs.

Sgt. Gomes said the police department’s drug take-back box in the lobby fills up frequently and is a valuable community service.

Mike Doyle, outreach coordinator for Reliance Health, said the agency distributes “gift bags” to families that have experienced overdoses that contain information,

Alderman Mark Bettencourt asked how the task force would address criticism that taxpayer money shouldn’t be used for people abusing illegal drugs. Task force members said emergency responders first must treat the overdose crisis and save lives. Sgt. Gomes said police and courts do not prosecute overdose victims but do pursue arrests of illegal drug distributors.

Alderman William Nash, a retired Norwich police officer and former DARE officer — a police drug awareness education program no longer used in Norwich — asked if the program should be revived. Nash called it the most successful time he spent as a police officer, saying he believed his interactions with youths helped to prevent future problems.

Sgt. Gomes agreed and said working as a DARE officer and as a police school resource officer he felt he made “the most difference.” He said positive interactions with police paid dividends in the public’s relationship with police.

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©2019 The Day (New London, Conn.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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