Franklin County, Athol work to monitor their own overdoses
How do you deal with a problem you can’t pin down until years after the fact?
Those seeking to address the heroin problem in this area are not content to live with that situation, so a system is being put into place to provide numbers on overdoses years ahead of slow state reports.
In June, for example, a 15-year-old girl overdosed on Tylenol; three women, ages 42, 23 and 25 overdosed on unknown pills, one overdosing a second time on Tylenol; a 23-year-old man overdosed on heroin and a 24-year-old woman overdosed on Benzodiazepines, a commonly abused range of antianxiety prescriptions including Valium.
All six people survived.
These overdoses, all in Greenfield and Montague, were recorded by police and passed on to the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office this month in a county response to the lack of a reliable, timely gauge of drug damage in the area.
“The Department of Public Health’s data is really out of date and we did not have any real information about what was going on in real-time in our community,” says Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force Coordinator Marisa Hebble.
Sheriff Christopher Donelan is among the leaders of the Task Force, founded locally and with a scope encompassing Franklin and Hampshire counties and the North Quabbin Region ... so Deputy Sheriff Becky Paciorek administers the new data collection system.
Nearly every Franklin County police department, Athol police and some of the smaller town ambulance services — 28 agencies total — participate in the system.
Reaching back to the beginning of the year, not everyone was so lucky as the six in June; since Jan. 1 the system has counted six deaths. All six — three in January and three in May — died of suspected heroin overdoses.
Most of the states’s overdose numbers are confined to deaths, with toxicology reports confirming the cause months or years later and the numbers lumped together under the vague heading of “narcotics.”
The Franklin County system is more of a common sense guess, and Paciorek said they are working toward real-time reporting from the emergency departments.
“These are all unconfirmed overdoses but for an officer in the field, when they come upon someone and there are needles or prescriptions around it’s not often a big leap that there was an overdose,” Hebble said.
The system is based on an Internet document that can be accessed and modified by those with a password.
The form asks local agencies whether the agency has responded to an overdose in the past month. If the answer is “yes,” they are asked for the date, for the victim’s initials — to avoid duplication, Paciorek said — their gender, age, the drug, the town they were found in, whether the opioid overdose antidote Narcan was administered, whether they were taken to the hospital and whether they survived.
“The little bit of information they’re giving us about these overdoses is helping us to get a picture of who is affected,” Hebble said. “The more detailed the data is, the more we can tailor our strategies to the problem.”
Numbers crunched up to June showed a three-way split between prescription opiates, Benzodiazepines and heroin, with heroin cited 24 times, and benzos and painkillers eight each, a spike of 16 overdoses in January and the line holding at 5 to 7 each month since.
The system only catches those overdoses known to the reporting agencies; cases in which no one called 911 or the person was brought straight to the emergency room are, of course, not recorded.
“I think it’s more information than we had in November of last year but I don’t think it’s a complete picture,” Hebble said.
She said the Task Force is working on a way to collect emergency room data, without violating strict federal confidentiality rules. They are also keeping an eye on the arrest numbers, primarily in Greenfield — where, Hebble said, Chief Robert Haigh Jr. is very involved in the task force, and where crime and population are the highest in the county.
You can reach Chris Curtis at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 257