By David Koran and Erick Nordby
Citizen Chronicle Writers
SOUTHBRIDGE — Over the last five years, the number of local deaths related to opioid overdose has more than tripled, following a larger trend playing out across the nation. Town officials are now armed with funds to help wage the war on drugs and will start by opening a rehab clinic downtown.
The Town Council voted unanimously Monday night to support the Town Manager’s Substance Abuse Advisory Committee’s plans, including the expenditure of up to $25,000. The funds will help bring in guest speakers to middle and high school students, literature, posters, a banner, billboard advertising, the tip411 smartphone app, funding for an increased Red Ribbon Week in October, and more — all focused on the dangers of substance abuse. This is in addition to the continuation of the Southbridge Police Department’s Community Assisted Recovery for Everyone (CARE) program.
In a survey of local Grade 8 students cited by Town Manager Ron San Angelo, 8 percent of respondents said they had used alcohol, while 6.6 percent confirmed they’ve used a vaping device, 5.5 percent admitted to marijuana use, and 2.1 percent said they had used inhalants.
“Substance abuse is a national problem and it’s impacting Massachusetts and, in fact, impacting our community,” San Angelo told the Town Council Monday night.
According to Massachusetts Department of Public Health records, 20 opioid-related overdose deaths have been recorded in Southbridge since 2012, including 13 deaths in 2016 and 2017. Deputy Police Chief Jose Dingui said the town’s CARE program and the use of Narcan has kept the death toll from “being a lot worse.”
To help combat those deaths, as well as all sorts of crimes and problems, a portion of the funds budgeted to combat substance abuse locally will be the use of the tip411 smartphone app. Dingui said the app is among the most important components of the substance abuse advisory committee’s work.
“With tip411 we give a tool to the public to become part of the police,” he explained. “We really need the help of the public to solve crimes, and with this resource it will be at your fingertips.”
Dingui said the app allows police to send out alerts and for the general public to anonymously report crimes, overdoses and other concerns. The app user’s identity remains anonymous regardless of what is reported, although police are able to respond through the app to continue a dialogue if necessary. This feature was imperative, Dingui said, noting similar apps do not feature two-way communication.
“It will be a great tool for the community of Southbridge,” he asserted.
PROS, CONS OF NARCAN
Narcan has become controversial in some settings as opponents argue it uses public resources to save a drug user during a potentially lethal overdose. Some critics suggest addicts may overdose on narcotics with the knowledge that their life may be spared through the utilization of Narcan. Suboxone can also deliver relief from opioid cravings, and that can make addiction recovery possible, but the medication should only be used in accordance with a comprehensive treatment program. Those who are suffering from opioid use disorder can get online suboxone in Bellevue.
Town Councilors Marc DiPietro and Monique Manna are among those who have qualms with the availability and use of Narcan. DiPietro suggested addicts have been emboldened by the prevalence of Narcan, while Manna said it only ends up “encouraging” and “enabling” drug users.
Dingui and San Angelo said the ability to save a life trumps any potential of drug users relying on the availability of Narcan.
Speaking of Narcan-enabled recoveries, Dingui contrasted the experience to fatal overdoses at the start of his police career. “When I first came on 20 years ago, that same scene would be yellow tape and death,” he said.
“I think the longer we keep an addict alive, the more chance of us getting him the help he needs,” Dingui said, “so I think it’s positive by far because before there were many, many people that got addicted through painkillers because they got an injury. If that happens to be your son, my son, and he’s Narcaned six, seven times, the image is, ‘He’s a drug user, why are we saving his life,’ but he’s somebody’s son.”
Added San Angelo: “We’re going to save a life in those situations.”
LOCAL OPIOID CRISIS
From Dec. 31, 2016, through Dec. 13, 2017, Dingui said, the Southbridge Fire Department received 51 calls that had “an element of overdose criteria,” with medics administering Narcan 41 times. In the same time, police officers administered Narcan seven times and bystanders or family members used it three times.
According to data collected by first responders, nearly 63 percent of those EMS calls were for local males, while nearly 73 percent were for people aged 22-49. Only one of those calls was for an individual below the age of 22, while 10 calls were for individuals aged 50-64, and three calls were made for individuals aged 65 or greater.
The CARE program was implemented July 1, 2016, providing drug users an opportunity to seek help and assistance in getting clean through the police department, greeted with compassion and aid rather than handcuffs and a jail cell. Police Chief Shane D. Woodson recently told The Citizen Chronicle about 15 people have come forward through the CARE program to seek help treating their addictions.
“If we save only one person from this terrible disease, then the program has served its purpose and we have succeeded,” Woodson said.
The Southbridge Police Department’s CARE policy states: “Any person who enters police headquarters and requests help with their addiction to opiates will be immediately screened into the CARE program. If such a person has requested help with their addiction while in possession of drugs or drug equipment (needles, etc.), they will not be charged.”
Dingui told the Town Council Monday night that, through the CARE program, the police department will “open our doors” to those in need, regardless of “what time of day” and will work to “get you into a rehab as soon as possible”. You can check my blog to see some drug rehabilitation treatment programs which can help increased patient’s stability and reduce the symptoms of withdrawal and addiction.
The CARE program is a derivative of the renowned Angel program that was implemented by the Gloucester Police Department by now-retired Police Chief Leonard Campanello. Woodson and other local officials met with Campanello to discuss the program and how it might be successfully brought to Southbridge. Campanello told the local police chief the Angel program “would never succeed” without the support of elected officials, Woodson recalled.
The support was there as San Angelo, then-Town Council Chairman Shaun Moriarty, and then-Town Councilor Al “Apple” Vecchia collaborated on a highly publicized public meeting of the Town Council’s Protection of Persons and Property subcommittee. That subcommittee was chaired by Vecchia, who ran the meeting that included participation and comments from Woodson and Campanello.
Since that meeting, San Angelo has formed the substance abuse advisory committee. Outreach to the community has included social media posts as well as announcements at meetings for groups such as Narcotics Anonymous, Spectrum, ADCARE, and Learn to Cope.