WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - The City of Wilmington unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday night to form a quick response team to reduce opioid overdoses by helping victims get into treatment and recovery programs.
The full name of the program is The Cape Fear Opiate Overdose Quick Response Team (CFOOQRT).
The quick response team joins several ongoing initiatives by law enforcement to combat the opioid epidemic in the Wilmington area, including the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT), and a program which gives officers naloxone kits to revive people from opioid overdoses.
Although the official crisis response team is not expected to be fully operational until July 1, an early version of the crisis response team is already in place, according to Deputy Chief Mitch Cunningham with the Wilmington Police Department.
"The opioid quick response team is actually already working right now," said Cunningham. "We knew this money was coming. I just made the decision. I don't want to wait. We've got people dropping, and they need contact right now.
"The community medics along with EMS and Coastal Horizons have already been following up with folks who have had an opiate overdose and have been reversed," Cunningham added. He was not able to provide immediate numbers on how many people have transitioned to treatment and recovery care after overdoses.
Between now and July when the final quick response team will begin its field work, the city will receive proposals from and select a private agency to direct the operation of the quick response team, said Tony McEwen, assistant to the city manager for legislative affairs.
Funding for the quick response team will come from a $500,000 grant from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. The money was originally budgeted in mid-2017.
The money will fund salaries and travel for the team consisting of a peer support specialist for substance abuse, a licensed behavioral health specialist, and a part-time psychiatrist or other medical professional.
The money will not fund treatment and recovery programs for the people receiving services.
"There's been a big void in our community," said McEwen. "Paramedics, fire, police, they respond to the scene where there's an opiate-related overdose. They treat them at the scene, Narcan, naloxone, bring them back. But also, they give them options for going into treatment.
"As you can imagine, often times folks deny that at the scene and we're left as a community to wonder as those people go back into the community, what is to become of them?"
Once a person has an opioid overdose and is revived by first responders, the quick response team will strive to make contact within 48 hours, but no longer than five days after the overdose, according to McEwen.
The team will contact victims through repeated house visits, phone calls, text messages, and other communication routes.
"We don't have to sit and wonder anymore," McEwen said. "This team will respond to their place of residence, wherever they can locate this person and they will build relationships with them, educate them on treatment options and if they say 'no' at that time, they come right back out in just a number of days."
Recipients will receive personalized education and referral to treatment and recovery.
The overdose victim's family will also receive referral to supportive care.
"The goal that we seek to measure on this is the number of opioid-related overdoses in both the city of Wilmington and New Hanover County at large," McEwen said. "That is the end game for this quick response team."
The Department of Public Safety and the City of Wilmington will share the results of the pilot project on Feb. 1, 2019.
"I'd like to thank all the stakeholders. Mayor (Bill) Saffo played a large role, Chairman Woody White Played a large role, our entire state delegation, Senator Michael Lee, but in particular, Representative Ted Davis is the one that took the ball and really moved it forward, and ensured we got this appropriation in the state budget," said McEwen
Lessons from the LEAD Program
The quick response team isn't the first public step city leaders have taken to combat opioid overdoses.
In May 2017, the Wilmington Police Department launched a pilot LEAD program, which stands for law-enforcement assisted diversion.
"If we come across a person who has small amounts of opioids, instead of bring them to a magistrate, having them arrested, put through the criminal justice system, we really actually physically drive them to Coastal Horizons, which is our treatment provider," said Cunningham.
The LEAD program assigns a caseworker to the person if they agree to participate when asked by law enforcement. The committee meets every two weeks to review each person's case to make sure they are getting the services they need.
The caseworker is paid for by Coastal Horizons Center, according to Cunningham.
"LEAD is really not costing the police department anything, other than staff time of course," said Cunningham.
The caseworker helps the person find food, shelter, access to drug treatment and more.
"Currently we have about seven people in our program, so it's kind of small," Cunningham said. "It starts slow. We know from Fayetteville's experience that it will start slow."
The LEAD program is designed for people who police come into contact with or people who are referred by friends of family members.
The LEAD program and the crisis intervention team are "two different methods of contacting and providing services to the same group of people," said Cunningham.
"What we have found is that, which was somewhat of a surprise to us, a lot of people who are overdosing in Wilmington are not necessarily from Wilmington," said Cunningham. "They are coming here, purchasing the drugs that they're using, and then overdosing shortly thereafter."
Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) reaches people facing mental health difficulties
The CIT is composed of police officers who de-escalate situations to help people with mental health difficulties, including people who also face drug addictions.
"These are police officers who go away to do special training for a week," said Cunningham. "We partner with (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) NAMI and Coastal Horizons, and really teach officers how to bring a certain set of skills when interacting with someone with mental health difficulties."
Cunningham said these officers are key to helping people who face not only addiction problems, but also other mental health issues.
"People are going to relapse, and they are going to relapse multiple times," Cunningham said. "You can't give up on them. You have to be ever-persistent at understanding, this is where they are, and helping them. Eventually, they will be ready for help, addiction services, ready to turn their life around."