Credit: Staff Photo by Andrew Wilkins
Help sent to site of opioid overdoses in new Georgia recovery program
After a community is affected by an opioid overdose, an expanded program from Georgia’s Department of Public Health will send recovery and harm reduction advocates door-knocking in the neighborhood nearby.
Along with some community members, public health officials are feeling discouraged by the high number of opioid overdoses, according to Rewa Pressley, the department’s Northwest District emergency preparedness coordinator. She oversees the district’s opioid program.
“For us in Northwest Georgia, this is what we thought would be a great utilization of funds — to be a boots-on-the-ground initiative and take help and hope right to people’s doors, literally,” Pressley said by phone.
Called a post-overdose response team, it began as a pilot program in Paulding County last year, she said.
After an overdose, a pair of representatives from recovery community organizations will knock on doors near an overdose site or set up at a community gathering place like a gas station or store, she said.
Starting in April, the state is expanding the post-overdose community canvass to the entire 10-county district, led by five of the district’s recovery community organizations, Pressley said. Recovery community organizations are independent nonprofit groups run by leaders in the recovery community, which in Northwest Georgia is United in Recovery, she said.
“Those were people who were really thankful that someone had come to where they were,” Pressley said of the people in Paulding County. “Obviously, there’s stigma attached to overdose, there’s transportation barriers, there’s a myriad of things that keeps people from the help they really do want.”
Jennifer Jenkins is the executive director of Unified in Recovery, which covers Walker, Catoosa, Dade and Chattooga counties. Costing low six figures, the response team is funded by state and federal funds through the end of August — and Northwest District spokesman Logan Boss said in an email funding is expected to continue going forward.
On a home visit, the team drops off literature about harm reduction during the use of opioids, information on recovery programs and supplies like naloxone, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose, Jenkins said. Fentanyl test strips, which provide a way for opioid users to avoid drugs containing the powerful synthetic opioid, are also available, Jenkins said by phone.
Along with supplies, recovery advocates will have door hangers for people who aren’t home or don’t answer their door.
Jenkins said Unified in Recovery did a similar outreach after an overdose in Walker County’s Kensington community at the end of January killed three people.
She said the organization hasn’t decided how many houses near an overdose will be visited, but that depends on the number of overdoses in the organization’s four-county area.
A neighbor or family member will most likely have a better chance at reaching someone who’s using opioids, Jenkins said. Those community members also need to be prepared in case the opioid user they’re close to has an overdose.
As part of preparing for the program, Jenkins said she was given state statistics on overdoses in the four-county district visited by emergency medical services personnel. From mid-March 2022 to mid-March this year, there were 271 suspected opioid overdoses, five deaths and 213 naloxone administrations.
From 2010 to 2020, the number of opioid-related overdose deaths in Georgia increased by 207%, according to the Georgia Department of Health.
From her on-the-ground experience, Jenkins said the state isn’t tracking all the overdoses, and many that don’t require medical attention are even harder to track. Part of the program is improving overdose reporting, and Jenkins said that will involve working with the emergency medical response companies and the region’s fire departments.
People in the community reached by representatives in the organization often ask how to identify an overdose and how they can help. Jenkins said the state’s naloxone fact sheet is a good resource.
People who want to help, Jenkins said, can maintain a supply of naloxone and learn how to use it, volunteer at recovery community organization outreach days and be an advocate for recovery and harm reduction. She said she can be reached at 706-853-0624 if anyone has questions.
There’s been a spike of fatal overdoses in Rome, Georgia, recently, and Jenkins said that usually means more overdoses in Northwest Georgia will soon follow.
During the pilot program, Pressley said a home visit after a nearby overdose was the start of many people in Bartow County’s recovery journey — and expanding that program should bring help to Northwest Georgians with the most need.
“It can be very discouraging and almost hopeless,” Pressley said. “That feeling, ‘What more can we do?’ And while we most certainly don’t think we have all the answers — obviously, it’s a community issue — so it’s a community answer.”