AUBURN — Like many communities, Cayuga County experienced a spike in overdose deaths in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the isolation resulting from social distancing mandates wreaked havoc on Cayuga County residents with mental health and opioid use struggles.
But because the county has been participating in the national HEALing Communities Research Study, advocates were able to implement a major push to distribute a medicine that can save lives of people experiencing an overdose.
Monika Salvage, the local project director for HEALing Communities Study, spoke about the initiative at last week's Auburn City Council meeting.
The study's aims include testing "evidence-based practices," a news release said, for treating opioid addiction and reducing stigma in 67 communities in four states, with the intention of decreasing opioid overdose deaths by 40% over four years. The study is part of the National Institute of Health’s HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-term) Initiative.
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Cayuga County's participation began in January, Salvage said. The local team is hoping to "really move the needle in terms of overdoses and overdose deaths," she said.
With a spike of five overdose deaths in April, Salvage continued, the local group didn't want that increase to continue, so they began "aggressively distributing" Narcan, a medicine which can save the life of a person overdosing on opioids, including heroin, prescription opioid pain medicine or a drug containing fentanyl.
Before the pandemic, registered opioid overdose prevention programs in the county run by organizations such as the Cayuga County Sheriff's Office and the Cayuga County Mental Health Center were holding in-person events. But then "virtually no Narcan" was being distributed in the community with sudden COVID-19 restrictions.
The Cayuga County study group then checked in with in the state Department of Health, and put a training platform on the county website. People can watch a seven-minute video of recognizing an opioid overdose emergency and how to deal with it with Narcan. People can also request the medicine be mailed to their homes.
"We were really overwhelmed by the response. What we realized was also when we did that, previously the in-person Narcan trainings had been mostly in and around Auburn," Salvage said. "Through the online mechanism, we really reached people throughout the county, and that was not happening before."
Because holiday weekends are often a trigger for people to use opioids more, the study group organized a pop-up distribution event in neighborhoods where the data showed a lot of overdoses were happening. People were shown how to use Narcan, and it was distributed. Other events followed.
Through these efforts, 451 people were trained in four months, including 222 people trained online and 188 who learned at the pop-up events.
The presentation to the council, available through the city's website, showed overdoses are up in 2020, with 171 overdoses and 19 fatal overdoses from January to September 2020, in contrast with 179 total overdoes in 2019 and nine total fatal overdoses that year. The data showed overdoses are occurring throughout the county and throughout demographics, Salvage added.
Salvage added that the group wants to continue its community outreach to reduce stigma on addiction while emphasizing that there are various paths to recovery.
After she spoke to the council, Salvage told The Citizen that ultimately, addiction can happen to anyone.
"We want to get general awareness about opioid use disorder out in the community to reduce the stigma around, 'This only happens to certain people, this could never happen to my family or anybody in my circle.'"
Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.