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Story By John Murray

In addition to tackling the opioid crisis with lawsuits against Big Pharma, the City of Waterbury has launched an innovative program that is taking the fight straight to the survivors of a drug overdose.

The program is called “Warm Hand Off” and is a partnership between the Waterbury Police Department and the Waterbury Health Department. Warm Hand-off is ten months old and is getting rave reviews, and on January 10th the program received a $900,000 federal grant.

Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary addressing the media on January 10th.

How does it work? When an overdose call comes in a team springs into action. In addition to first responders and EMTs, members of the Waterbury Police Department and two recovery coaches from the Health Department arrive on the scene. The recovery coaches are called Overdose Response Technicians (ORT).

Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary said the program is innovative because, “we have people on duty who are dispatched to the scene with medics. Once the scene is safe, we have clinicians meet with the overdose victim, and then follow them to the hospital and meet with their families, which is very, important.”

The goal of Warm Hand Off is to connect the survivor to care – substance abuse treatment services – and to connect the victim’s family to followup support.

The survivor is asked to voluntarily engage with the ORT who then follows up with the survivor a minimum of 5 times in the next month. The connection is made daily for the first three days, then again at the two week mark and one month mark. The ORT will offer harm reduction tools such as naloxone and other risk and prevention resources to help the survivor.

And the program appears to be working. Mayor O’Leary said, “The number of overdoses in the city of Waterbury in 2020 was about 840. The number of overdose deaths in 2020 were 94. The number of overdoses in 2021 was slightly less at 811. But I think the telling story is the number of overdose deaths went down to 74, which is almost a 25% reduction in deaths.”

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal was at the January 10th press conference outside the Waterbury Police Department on East Main Street.

“The Warm Handoff program is cutting edge,” Blumenthal said. “It is the tip of the spear of where this country is going in terms of outreach and solving the opioid epidemic. This is a remarkable success story. The handoff program already has turned around a lot of the trends toward higher overdose deaths and lower amounts of treatment.”

Blumenthal said Waterbury’s intervention program has had remarkable results in getting survivors into treatment plans. “In the first 10 months of the program there were 354 overdose cases, and 106 of those are in treatment or harm reduction or detox. That’s 30%. The nationwide rate is 10%. So you can see Waterbury is way ahead of the curve.”

Mayor O’Leary said the city’s Warm Hand Off program is so successful that it “may well lead to programs in other municipalities around the state and around the country. This is a very aggressive approach to the opioid issue, and we’re proud that Waterbury is at the forefront of it.”

Waterbury Health Department director, Asling McGuckin.

Aisling McGuckin is the director of the Waterbury Health Department and said the program leads with compassion. “Time and again, we’re reminded of the partnerships that are so important to make this actually work,” McGuckin said. “The work that they do on a daily basis is testament to the efficacy of those kinds of approaches, leading with compassion. We must make sure that we’re not just focusing on the problem, but the people affected by the problem.”

Senator Blumenthal said that the opioid crisis in America is getting worse, not better, and that Waterbury is bucking that trend. “Mayor O’Leary has provided the inspiration and the energy and as a former police chief, he knows that we’re not going to arrest our way out of the opioid crisis. It really takes hands on work by a team, a team of police and fire and public health and everyone in the city.”

Waterbury Deputy Police Chief John Napiello credited success of the Warm Hand Off program to Chief Fred Spagnolo, Sergeant Nadine Amatruda, officer Jennifer DeWitt and a great collaboration with the Health Department.

With a recent $300 million opioid settlement with Johnson & Johnson, the state of Connecticut should begin receiving money to further address the opioid crisis. Besides the treatment centers and support programs, one component Mayor O’Leary hopes the money can be used for is strengthening the education efforts for students.

“It’s vitally important to get into our grammar schools, middle schools and high schools and educate these students on the dangers of opioid use,” O’Leary said. “The number of deaths are rising across the country and a lot of it has to do with the introduction of fentanyl.”

Image from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency illustrates how little fentanyl is considered a lethal dose as compared to heroin.

Senator Blumenthal drilled down on the dangers of Fentanyl stating “it’s the leading cause of death for people 18 to 45 years old. I know it’s hard to believe. But more than car crashes, more than COVID, fentanyl is the leading cause of death for 18 to 45 year olds. And the opioid crisis has been aggravated by the COVID pandemic, isolation, and the stress and anxiety of being out of school. And this grant is a recognition that we need more of the hands on kind of work that the Warm Handoff program will provide.” •