Dane County Executive Joe Parisi announced today a new initiative to reduce and prevent opioid and fentanyl abuse.
The Harm Reduction and Prevention Act consists of $740,000 to fund a variety of opioid prevention methods, including outreach in Dane County schools, increased funding for Narcan, and form new partnerships with organizations around the county. The funding will be included in Parisi’s 2023 budget proposal.
At today’s press conference, Parisi says that the plan looks to take a multi-angle approach towards tackling the opioid epidemic.
“We are addressing this on a number of levels. We are looking at prevention, we are working with local school districts and we will start being in schools to educate people, there will be other education and outreach (programs), there will be provision of fentanyl test strips, so we are right away trying to get in front of this to educate people about the dangers of fentanyl. One pill can kill. Then (we are) enhancing some of the programs we already have to help people who have survived a drug poisoning or overdose, and get them the help and support they need as soon as possible,” Parisi says.
In attendance at today’s press conference was Carola Gaines, the Co-Chair of the African-American Opioid Coalition. She cited public health statistics that show the overdose death rate in Dane County is three times higher among Black residents than their white counterparts.
“While the dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl presents in everything, from counterfeit prescription pills to cocaine, an equal opportunity killer, it is taking a disproportionate amount of Black families.” Gaines says
One program is targeted at education from an early age, introducing a prevention and harm reduction curriculum all the way from elementary school to high school.
Done in partnership with the nonprofit coalition Safe Communities Madison and Dane County, the program will pilot new education courses for schools focusing on identifying risks in opioid use.
Safe Communities also plays another role in the new plan, with a new program to place recovery coaches in local hospitals. The goal is to reduce the amount of time a person who has experienced an overdose needs to wait before being connected to addiction recovery resources.
Jewel Adams is a recovery coach with Safe Communities. Wearing a shirt reading “End Overdose,” she says that, as someone who has personally seen two people she was working with die from an opioid overdose, her shirt is not just a statement.
“That’s our fight. That’s what we are fighting for today. That’s what recovery coaching does, that’s what the African American Opioid Coalition is all about. We want fentanyl off our streets, we are fighting to get fentanyl off our streets, and until we can get it off our streets we are doing drug poisoning prevention (and) harm reduction programs,” Adams says.
Adams was not the only person there personally touched by the opioid epidemic. Charles Tubbs, Director of Dane County Emergency Management, lost a child to an opioid overdose. With Narcan in hand, Tubbs says that his role in Emergency Management has shown him the true extent of the opioid epidemic in Dane County.
“Some people want to take the position that these people are not real. But I tell you, they are our children, our brothers, our sisters, our moms, dads, friends, and the strangers in the street. They are not ‘addicts,’ or ‘losers’ or ‘throw-away criminals,’ they are real life human beings,” Tubbs says.
Tubbs says that he estimates that Narcan is used dozens of times in Dane County every single month.
Another prong of today’s plan is a program to facilitate Narcan distribution. Dane County Emergency Management is slated to get a prevention specialist who would oversee a program to give local EMS agencies the ability to leave Narcan rescue kits at the scene of an overdose, so that it may be prevented in the future. These kits would be left with either a person at-risk for an opioid overdose, or a friend or family member able to assist them.
Additionally, around $185,000 will be given to groups in the community to provide med lock boxes, Narcan, and fentanyl testing strips. These groups include the African American Opioid Coalition, the Pride in Prevention Coalition, and the Recovery Coalition of Dane County.
Finally, the county will help create and fund a prevention coordinator at the OutReach LGBTQ Community Center. Steve Starkey is the executive director with OutReach. He says that it’s difficult to say exactly how the opioid epidemic affects the LGBTQ community, and hopes that the new prevention coordinator will help them to find out.
“LGBTQ people tend to use drugs and alcohol and have addiction issues at a higher rate than the general population, which has been documented over decades. But studies have not been done here in Dane County. Public Health Madison and Dane County did a study back in 2016, but that’s quite a while ago,” Starkey says.
OutReach does have an opioid addiction advocate, but right now they are only part time. Starkey says that the prevention coordinator would work with other organizations to build the infrastructure needed to provide help to everyone in Dane County.
Today’s new initiative came as the state’s Republican-controlled budget-writing committee finally approved a spending plan for $31 million dollars received as part of a multi-state settlement with opioid manufacturers.
That comes after state Republicans blocked a spending plan proposed by Governor Tony Evers last month. While the spending plans are 85% the same, the plan passed today includes funding for law enforcement, which was left out of the Governor’s plan.
Meanwhile, the Dane County Board will vote tonight on a resolution to create a program to help supply local organizations with fentanyl testing strips, which only recently became legal for Wisconsin residents to own. That meeting begins tonight at 7.
A total of $275,000 of the almost $740,000 plan will be included in Parisi’s 2023 budget, which will be released on October 3. That includes funding for the OutReach Prevention Coordinator, and the prevention specialist position and the Narcan “Leave Behind” Program with Dane County Emergency Management. The rest of the funding will be introduced to the Dane County Board this evening to be released immediately.
Photos courtesy: Nate Wegehaupt / WORT News Team