ITEM PHOTO BY OWEN O’ROURKE
Mary Wheeler, program director of Healthy Streets, teaches a woman how to use Narcan.
By GAYLA CAWLEY
LYNN — After a recent five-day span of five fatal apparent opioid overdoses, Mary Wheeler, program director of Healthy Streets, wants people to know they have a place to go for help.
Lynn Police and the Essex County District Attorney’s office reported five fatal apparent overdoses from Feb. 3-7. There was also a fatal suspected crack cocaine overdose in that time span. Updated statistics for February were not available on Monday.
Healthy Streets Outreach Program describes itself as an HIV/AIDS and overdose prevention program serving active injection drug users and their families on the North Shore. Wheeler said the organization runs a program that provides Naloxone, or Narcan, the lifesaving overdose drug.
Healthy Streets is a Department of Public Health Naloxone distribution pilot site. Wheeler said there are more than 20 sites throughout the state. Lynn became a state-funded pilot site in 2007, one of the first eight in Massachusetts. The locations were chosen based on where there was community need, Wheeler said.
Wheeler said the Naloxone distribution site teaches people how to recognize an overdose, respond and administer the medication. Anyone can get trained, including active users and family members.
Wheeler said Massachusetts has a high rate of 911 calls among people who have been trained in Narcan. Part of the training at the pilot site is calling 911. Some people get scared and don’t want to call, but most people do. She said the Good Samaritan Law, which provides protection from drug possession charges when an overdose witness or victim seeks medical attention or calls 911 for medical assistance, has helped with that. Before, people historically didn’t want to call.
“Our catch phrase is usually ‘it’s better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it,” Wheeler said of Naloxone. “It’s not the ultimate answer, but it buys people time.”
Wheeler said there’s been a huge increase in overdoses and fentanyl, which police say is 100 times stronger than heroin found on the streets. She said overdoses may be up because people might not know what they’re buying or are using alone. She said people may also inject more times a day, as fentanyl acts fast, but wears off more quickly.
According to Department of Public Health statistics, there were 1,574 confirmed opioid-related deaths in 2015, and 1,747 estimated deaths, which was a 20 percent increase over 2014. There were 1.2 opioid-related deaths a day in 2015. In 2016, Wheeler said there were likely more than 2,000 deaths.
“There’s definitely more fatalities in recent years,” Wheeler said. “I think this problem has been a problem for many years in Massachusetts and is just escalating to a point where it’s going to be very, very hard for us to get a handle on it. I think there were a lot of years prior to now where people were trying to get a lot of attention and focus on the problem and people weren’t really listening. And now, we’re here with 2,000 deaths a year in Massachusetts. Hopefully, we’re not too late.”
She said people can also come to the organization to make calls and secure detox beds elsewhere. Wheeler said there’s an issue with bed shortage. People are able to find a detox bed, but have more trouble finding a bed for after care.
The opioid crisis is a public health issue, Wheeler said. She said one of the things that’s been happening for many years in Massachusetts is there’s been a spike in HIV and Hepatitis C cases. She said the organization has seen issues with people who have overdosed multiple times and are starting to mirror people who have a brain injury. It becomes a more complicated issue after they stop using drugs, she said.
Wheeler said there’s also trauma among people who work in the field because of the massive amount of drug-related deaths. There can also be soft tissue infections and more abscesses among users from injecting fentanyl constantly.
People can access Healthy Streets at 339-440-5633 or walk in at 100 Willow St., where the organization is located on the second floor.
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Gayla Cawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.