Mayor Bowser highlighted the District’s recent efforts to combat the opioid epidemic in Washington, DC through a broad, coordinated response that brings together government, public health, healthcare, and law enforcement agencies. Since May 2016, 1,000 District-purchased naloxone kits have helped save the lives of at least 290 people in Washington, DC. Naloxone is a potent opioid antagonist that is used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. The Mayor announced today that the District will distribute 2,500 additional life-saving kits. Mayor Bowser was joined at the announcement by the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services HyeSook Chung, Director of the Department of Behavioral Health Tanya Royster, Chief Medical Examiner Roger A. Mitchell Jr., and other District officials.
“We must work together to curb this growing epidemic and treat it like the public health issue that it is,” said Mayor Bowser. “In Washington, DC, we will continue to lead the way by conducting cutting-edge research, developing proven treatments, and working with our regional and federal partners to coordinate efforts.”
Naloxone is FDA-approved for emergency treatment of known or suspected opioid overdoses, and has no effect in people who are not taking opioids nor does it have any effects on overdose victims other than reversing the overdose. The Naloxone distributed by the District is administered as a nasal spray. The Department of Health (DOH) distributes naloxone kits through two community partners: HIPS and Family and Medical Counseling Service, Inc.
The Mayor also highlighted several ways the District plans to treat opioid addiction through the expansion of Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), which combines counseling with medications that block cravings for opioids and other drugs. DOH is expanding MAT through the use of Suboxone, a combination medication that reduces withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Suboxone MAT can be prescribed by a primary care physician, eliminating the need to visit a stand-alone clinic to access it. In order to increase access to Suboxone, DOH is launching a project that will train 100 primary care providers in prescribing the medication.
In addition, the Department of Behavioral Health was awarded a two-year, $2 million federal grant for prevention and recovery efforts to support MAT. The grant will be used to address all individuals with or at-risk for opioid use disorders, but target middle-aged, African-American males who use heroin. The District’s opioid epidemic is unique in that it primarily affects African-American males who have been active heroin users for more than ten years, with nearly 90 percent of users aged 40 and older.
“The Department of Behavioral Health has robust treatment and recovery services to help people get and stay addiction free,” said Dr. Tanya A. Royster, Director of the Department of Behavioral Health. “We are planning a public awareness campaign to educate people about the dangerous combination of illegal heroin and synthetic drugs that is causing more overdoses and deaths.”
Part of the District’s coordinated response also involves an innovative program between the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) and the Department of Forensic Sciences (DFS) that allows DFS to test the contents of syringes found at the scenes of potential opioid overdose deaths. The program helps OCME learn more about the substances found within the syringes and the victims, aiding in the identification of new synthetic drugs being marketed as heroin.
“The drugs that are being found at death are now 50 to 100 times more potent than the drugs we have seen in the past,” said Dr. Roger Mitchell. “Because the designer drugs that are flooding our community are changing day-to-day and week-to-week, we must match our level of forensic testing to the severity of these substances.”