DC responds to opioid crisis by increasing antidote supply and testing syringes

WASHINGTON — Last month, more than 20 people in D.C. died from heroin overdoses. That’s something James Washington is used to seeing.

Washington, an outreach worker for D.C.’s Family and Medical Counseling Services, is on the streets every day in the areas he calls the “red zones” of heroin use.

“I’m here to help. I see them out there every day. Right now, you know, they are out there,” Washington said.

He carries the lifesaving heroin antidote Narcan during his day finding users. He also carries new needles and exchanges them for used ones.

“We got to get to them early, so they won’t throw the syringes in the street so some kid can pick it up, and then we’re talking about HIV and Hep C,” he said.

The growth in overdoses has inspired Mayor Muriel Bowser to launch a multimillion-dollar program to combat heroin use, which includes syringe testing, outreach campaigns and an increase of the supply of Narcan.

She unveiled a program Friday which doubles the supply of Narcan for outreach centers like Washington’s to distribute to the community, and aims to convey the dangers of fentanyl to longtime users.

“There are different drugs in the supply and these drugs you cannot manage,” she said at the news conference announcing the program. “One dose could kill you.”

Last year, the city’s 1,000 naloxone kits brought at least 290 D.C. residents back from the clutches of an overdose, according to city numbers. There are now 2,000 kits being distributed, so laymen can administer them and keep an overdose victim alive until paramedics can reach them.

“We’ve run out of it. So this will increase our supply and allow us to distribute it as well as have it available when we’re out in our van doing our work,” said Dr. Flora Terrell Hamilton, CEO of Family and Medical Counseling Services.

“We know on the street now there is a mixture of fentanyl. There are other synthetic drugs, but fentanyl is the one that seems to be causing the most havoc in the community today,” Hamilton said.

Most of the time, Washington said, users don’t know what kind of mix of drugs they are getting. And neither do their dealers, but it is understood among users the more fentanyl in their heroin, the better the high.

“They are dying with the syringe in their arm or around them,” said Dr. Roger Mitchell, D.C.’s chief medical examiner.

Mitchell is playing a vital role tracking the opioid epidemic in the District by testing an overdose patient’s fluids and comparing them with the results of the synthetic drugs found in the syringe. It’s pilot program called the syringe washing program. The medical examiner tests the biological evidence and partners with the Department of Forensic Scientists, which tests the drugs.

“We’re looking at data points to see how effective it’s being and what we can tell from it and then we’r’e going to provide it to our … public health stakeholders,” Mitchell said.

Hamilton said they see hundreds of people sign up for the detox program and services they offer, and many experience relapses, but their efforts are working.

“We got right here people who started out with just [the] needle exchange; now they’re living clean lives,” Washington said.


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