Opioid use is climbing in the D.C. region, and officials in Arlington County, Virginia, are hoping to cut down on the number of overdoses caused by fentanyl that they’ve seen in the past year.
Arlington County data show police responded to 149 emergency calls in 2021 involving fentanyl. Now, the county is doubling down on a program that provides addicts a free tool to prevent overdoses: strips to test for the presence of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that can be mixed with other drugs such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.
Months after Arlington County’s Department of Human Services started the pilot program to dispense 100 fentanyl-testing strips, the county is renewing its opioid response grant as demand continues to grow.
“We were out of those test strips within the first couple of weeks. Since then, since the middle of August, we’ve dispensed 604 test strips,” said Emily Siqveland, who runs the county’s new Opioid Treatment Program.
She said stresses related to COVID-19 have undeniably contributed to an increase in opioid abuse.
“We as a community are experiencing this kind of collective trauma, and with stress, with trauma, [this] increases urges to use substances because substances are a coping strategy” to manage those stresses, she said. “They may be a dangerous coping strategy, but they’re still a coping strategy.”
While police travel with NARCAN to revive opioid users from an overdose, Siqveland said the testing strips are meant to be used before a drug is taken and can work in testing for fentanyl in both powders and pills.
“You just take a tiny little bit of the substance — if it’s a pill, you just chip off a tiny bit of the pill — you mix it with a little bit of water, you dip the test strip into the water for just a few seconds until you can see the water starting to come up the test strip. And then you wait for about a minute … the test results will either give you two lines or one line, which will mean that it’s either positive for fentanyl or no fentanyl was detected,” she said.
Siqveland said the county is working to spread the word about the free testing strips available to addicts.
“Addiction is a disease, and we have all these amazing tools to help treat this disease,” she said.
Those who want to get the fentanyl testing strips can email the county at email@example.com. The program is doing community outreach and wants to set up a location where strips can be available weekly for pickup.
Siqveland pushed back on criticism that offering free fentanyl testing encourages people to use opioids.
“I believe that folks are using regardless. We know that because we have seen a huge spike in overdoses in our community and across the United States in the last year. And with or without fentanyl test strips, people are using, and people are dying, and the fentanyl test strips are an opportunity to keep those folks alive, to keep our community members alive, and give them a shot at treatment,” she said.