Wilmington and New Hanover officials discuss what works when it comes to addressing the opioid crisis
The City of Wilmington-New Hanover County joint committee met on Tuesday to discuss how to allocate about $7 million of the opioid settlement money. The topics of discussion ranged from questions over the efficacy of the D.A.R.E program, the latest county statistics on the crisis, and the presence of illicit drug markets.
In 2021, opioids caused 593 overdoses and killed 96 people in New Hanover County. Data from 2022 isn't fully compiled, and the death toll isn't known yet, but for the first 11 months of the year there were 526 overdoses; most of these were males in the 26-44 age group.
Related: Joint New Hanover County-Wilmington committee closer to allocating opioid settlement funds
What to do about the downtown library, Meadowlark Lemon bridge?
City of Wilmington Councilman Luke Waddell, a voting member of the committee, said the ‘elephant in the room’ in tackling the local opioid crisis are two specific locations: the downtown public library and the Meadowlark Lemon Bridge. These are places where the homeless tend to congregate, prompting concerns about drug use.
“Without any direct action that's going to address these open-air drug markets, to me, seems insane, for lack of a better word, and if we're unwilling to address that, or unwilling to discuss it, and I mean, the elected leaders, not just in this room, but city, county, including myself, are complicit in increasing the opioid issue,” Waddell said.
Meredith Everhart, an attorney for the city, said to Waddell that in the Attorney General’s settlement with opioid drug distributors and manufacturers, “There's only a specific list of things that we can use these funds for, and they're all geared towards opioid use and abuse, but the law enforcement piece of that is specifically not addressed or included in what is listed. It's all geared towards treatment programs and building up the infrastructure to be able to address that.”
Waddell responded, “Respectfully, I refuse to accept that.”
New Hanover County Commission Chair Bill Rivenbark is also part of the committee to direct these funds. He offered another point of view.
“If you try to go in and remove these people who have the drugs, they're just gonna move somewhere else. We don’t need any more funding to go arrest them,” Rivenbark said.
After this, committee members started talking about a recently established program developed by the city and county to help support homeless individuals who are struggling with mental health and substance abuse issues.
Tony Caudle, the city manager, said this of the $1.6 million ‘Street Outreach Program’, which is funded through the federal American Rescue Program Act: “The new initiative from the city and the county was designed to be active with the social workers on the forefront, and law enforcement was there to provide a backup for not only a safety issue, but law enforcement issues that were observed, but they weren't designed to be a law enforcement mechanism.”
Related: City of Wilmington and New Hanover County agree to homeless intervention partnership
But Caudle said they need to speak with the Public Health Director Donna Fayko and Wilmington Police Chief Donny Williams to see how the presence of an officer is affecting the person in need.
“I think that the intent was an outreach effort, and if we start arresting folks as a result of that, then with that group, I think you may damage that relationship. So I'd say if we're going to do that, let's bring those folks in, and let's talk to them about how that would interact," Caudle said.
The county’s newest Chief Financial Officer Eric Credle tried to understand some of what Waddell’s proposed solutions to these issues were, asking, “is the focus on law enforcement your perspective on that?”
Waddell responded, “it doesn't have to be law enforcement. That was just my initial idea, [...] but I just think it's important, and incumbent upon this group that we that we have a direct call out,” for those two locations.
While the settlement funding plan isn’t intended to bolster law enforcement presence in general — it can be used to help them deal with the opioid crisis.
For example, the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office could receive $100,000 to distribute Naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses. The Wilmington Police Department is set to receive $70,000 for this, too.
The committee agreed wholeheartedly during the discussion that Naloxone saves lives, and that they should look into more ways to provide this in the community.
And, in concert with Coastal Horizons, the Sheriff's Office would also be able to offer medically-assisted therapies like Suboxone in the detention center, a price tag of $910,000. The committee anticipates with this funding, they’ll be able to serve about 300 more people.
Additionally, the proposed $1.6 million to give to EMS services, like New Hanover Fire and Rescue and Novant Health, to provide medically-assisted therapies will help bridge the gap, according to Jennifer Rigby, the county's chief strategy officer, because the drug Naloxone puts a person into immediate withdrawal, so medications like Suboxone will help them in the intermediary before they get into treatment.
They also mentioned that most people in the area are seeking treatment at Coastal Horizons, Walter Jones, and the Harbor. It's worth noting that the state-operated Walter Jones Woodside Treatment Center offers a range of services, including for underinsured and uninsured patients, however, it's located in Greenville, over two hours north of Wilmington.
Questions about D.A.R.E Drug Abuse Prevention Program
The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office is also set to receive a one-time allotment of $60,000 for the D.A.R.E program.
Waddell questioned whether this program needed to be for all K-12 students — whether they could focus it on middle to high school students, “Do we have a lot of kindergarteners dealing with opioid abuse? Or are we thinking maybe they're dealing with it from their parents, but not them necessarily abus[ing the drugs]?”
Rigby responded, “Certainly [the curriculum] will be age appropriate. But you're absolutely right, in our strategy sessions, we had a lot of conversations about the trauma that many children experience when they have a parent or a caregiver that is struggling with substance use disorders.”
Related: Wilmington Councilman Luke Waddell talks opioid epidemic, D.A.R.E, and plans for millions from settlement
But Rigby said she didn’t have the curriculum from the Sheriff’s Office yet to share with the committee.
Need for support after treatment programs
New Hanover County, using data from Coastal Horizon’s Quick Response Team (QRT), estimates that only about one in three people are connected to services after they have an opioid overdose. So, the committee is also tasked to figure out ways to close this gap.
And even after a person gets into treatment, those in recovery need a safe and secure place to stay. So that's one of the reasons they’re proposing $1.25 million to go towards short-term housing.
New Hanover County Commissioner Deb Hays, who chairs the committee, said this housing is crucial.
“This is where if they don't have the stability, whether that is housing, food, and support services, that’s where we lose them,” Hays said.
Rigby said it’s one of the loudest messages they heard in their meetings with people who experienced a relapse.
“'Hey, you know, I got through my treatment program, and then when I completed that, I didn't have the family support or the housing support’, so they then went back to the same stressors that they had prior to entering treatment. And so they needed something to help break this cycle,” Rigby said.
Rigby said if the plan is approved, they’ll put out a request for proposals (RFP) to find short-term housing providers.
Also in the proposed plan is an additional $1.25 million to support those in recovery with things like transportation, childcare, and education.
Additionally, Rigby said that about $200,000 will also go to a job training program, which they'll also have to do an RFP for.
Accountability and Measurement
Members of the committee asked about how they plan to assess their investments.
Rigby said the following will be their main measurements:
However, the committee pulled out “percent of people connected to care within 7-14 days out of inpatient facility, facility-based crisis or non-hospital detox.” The members mainly agreed that 7-14 days is too long. They debated for a 48-hour period to make this connection to treatment.
Next steps, the committee will likely meet for their final deliberation on the funding plan on February 20 before Wilmington City Council and New Hanover County Commission vote to approve the five-year plan at their meetings in March.