Vital Signs: Comprehensive Harm Reduction Helps Fight the Opioid Epidemic | Health

The opioid epidemic is significantly affecting our communities. The number of drug-related overdoses and overdose deaths in the state of Virginia, as well as in our district, has increased in recent years. Data from the Virginia Department of Health reports that an average of four Virginians die each day from an opioid overdose.

Data from the Blue Ridge Health District for 2021 indicated that about 64 people visited the emergency room for drug-related overdoses, an increase from previous years. However, it should be noted that these data do not adequately reflect the total number of people in our district who use drugs, have overdosed, and/or visited the emergency room with an opioid-related problem.

To address the effects of the ongoing opioid epidemic, comprehensive harm reduction is an essential practice.

VDH describes CSR as a set of public health strategies used to reduce the negative impact of drug use (including the transmission of HIV, hepatitis B and C, and other infections), overdoses, and deaths in people unable or unwilling to stop using drugs. Even if you’ve never used drugs before, understanding the principles of CSR and keeping up to date with local resources can be key to saving someone’s life.

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BRHD currently has several programs for those who wish to integrate CSS methods into their community engagement efforts.

Wake up fast! The training is open to all members of the community and provides comprehensive education on how to recognize and respond to an opioid overdose emergency using naloxone (brand name Narcan). Naloxone is a nasal spray used to quickly reverse an opioid overdose. Community members will receive a free box of naloxone at the end of the program.

Trainings take place several times a month at each of our health service sites throughout the district. For local organizations and businesses, BRHD offers lay lifeguard training by appointment. This course includes a detailed overview of the Rapid Revive! program and legislation surrounding naloxone, a brief overview of addiction, identifying risk factors that make individuals more vulnerable to an opioid overdose, common myths about how to reverse an opioid overdose, opioid emergency response protocol and information on how naloxone works.

In addition to training opportunities, BRHD also offers several material resources. Each health department office carries medicine disposal bags for community members to pick up during business hours. These medication disposal bags allow individuals to disable up to 45 pills, 6 fluid ounces, or 6 patches of old and/or unused medication at home. These bags are lightweight and can be safely placed in household trash.

BRHD also offers free rapid tests for HIV and hepatitis C and conventional tests for HIV, hepatitis B and C and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). A variety of items such as condoms and dental dams are also available.

Starting this fall, BRHD will be able to distribute fentanyl test strip kits to interested members of the community. These test strips will give individuals the ability to detect the presence of fentanyl, including 10 different fentanyl analogs (or synthetic opioids), in minutes.

All of these services are free to the community, and everyone is encouraged to participate. BRHD remains committed to providing equitable programs and tools to all people in our district, including those who are unable or unwilling to stop using drugs. If you have any questions about BRHD’s harm reduction services, please do not hesitate to contact Shannon Meade, Health and Housing Manager, at (434) 484-0255.

Shannon Meade is the health and housing manager for the Blue Ridge Health District.

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