A $75,000 federal pass-through grant administered by the state health department will help Suffolk County fund a new training program for first responders on the front lines of the opioid epidemic.
As opioids continue to wreak havoc on communities, they have taken a secondary toll on first responders. According to Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken, $50,000 of the grant will be put toward a new training program for first responders aimed at reducing compassion fatigue.
“There’s a substantial number of patients that are repeat-visitors to the EMS system,” Dr. Tomarken said in an interview Tuesday.
Throughout the country, first responders can become burned out and frustrated at how seemingly endless the cycle of addiction can be and how unwilling some are to seek treatment.
“We want to be proactive and make sure that the issue is being addressed with our first responders so that they don’t get frustrated, leave their work or render less than optimal care in the field,” Dr. Tomarken said. “We know and appreciate what they’re up against.”
The training will enable responders to identify the signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue, incorporate coping mechanisms and learn how to prevent it.
Dr. Tomarken hopes the training can bring some needed relief to first responders who bear witness to the opioid crisis locally.
Jennifer Culp, assistant to the health commissioner, said the county has been aggressive in tackling opioids.
Since implementing the opioid overdose prevention pilot project in 2012, all first responders in Suffolk County have been trained to identify and reverse opioid overdoses using Naloxone.
Naloxone is a medication that can rapidly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and is most commonly seen in the form of Narcan, a spray that can be administered nasally.
“For other counties, perhaps not all of their first responders are even doing reversals,” Ms. Culp said. “We’re beyond that point. We took that proactive response and had great engagement with first responders, but now it’s time to take a look at where their struggles are.”
The county’s efforts, however, extend beyond the scope of first responders.
Since 2013, more than 12,000 non-traditional responders — individuals other than emergency personnel who treat overdoses — have been trained in opioid overdose recognition and reversal, county officials said.
Since opioid overdoses can happen anywhere, the county plans to use some of the grant funds to expand opioid overdose prevention programs into non-traditional settings, such as libraries or restaurants.
“They’re faced with that potential reality,” Dr. Tomarken said. “Owners and their staff are concerned. They want more information on what to look for or what to do if they find someone in their washroom who has overdosed. We want to be able to get that information out there.”
According to the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, there were 388 Narcan reversals in 2018 through September 30.
The grant initiative will also focus on treatment options for substance abuse, officials said.
Their goal is to increase the number of active buprenorphine prescribers in Suffolk County.
Buprenorphine is an active ingredient in Suboxone, a medication used to block opiate receptors and reduce urges while preventing withdrawal symptoms associated with opioids.
Prescribing Suboxone, Dr. Tomarken said, requires an addition to the prescriber’s license and eight hours of training. “We want to expand the options for individual patients in the community,” he said.
The county will also use grant funds to hire a consultant to help set up Suboxone treatment programs, and provide technical assistance to providers and agencies. “There’s a bit of concern, fear and anxiety among providers. We want to be able to assist them to embrace this treatment because it is the recognized treatment for opiate substance abuse,” Dr. Tomarken said.
In a statement, County Executive Steve Bellone expressed gratitude for the funding. “These federal resources are critical to fund innovative programs that support health care providers and our emergency medical response,” he said.
Dr. Tomarken looks ahead with cautious optimism. “There’s no way to predict when we’ll turn the corner. I suspect it’ll be very slow,” he said. But with funding and additional programming, he remains hopeful: “We want to get the ball rolling, but we also want to keep it rolling and be able to make these permanent parts of our tool box.”