WATAUGA — AppHealthCare was one of 23 North Carolina health departments to be selected as a recipient of a three-year grant award of up to $275,000 that it plans to use for all three of its serviced counties — Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany.
These funds are part of a $7 million award from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Community Linkages to Care” program to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Public Health. North Carolina health departments will receive a share of a $2.1 million award annually for up to three years to implement high-impact, community-level strategies to address the opioid crisis, according to DHHS.
According to DHHS, this new set of funding continues the momentum from last year’s Emergency Overdose funding that was awarded to 22 local health departments/districts — which collectively served approximately 3,000 people through the same community-based strategies.
“This Community Linkages to Care funding serves as a catalyst for local communities across the state to directly address the opioid crisis by working collaboratively to build sustainable, impactful programs for the most vulnerable populations in their communities,” said Susan Kansagra — section chief for the Division of Public Health’s Chronic Disease and Injury Section — in a statement.
In 2017, Gov. Roy Cooper launched the NC Opioid Action Plan, which was updated and re-released as the NC Opioid Action Plan 2.0 in June 2019. AppHealthCare Health Director Jennifer Greene said there are three core strategies that the grant funds will be used for, which align with the North Carolina Opioid Action Plan priority areas to reduce harm and connect people to care. The core strategies include the development or expansion of syringe exchange programs, connection of justice-involved persons to care and the establishment of post-overdose response teams.
These strategies are community based and aim to prevent fatal and non-fatal opioid overdoses, increase access and linkages to care services for vulnerable populations and build local capacity to respond to overdoses, according to Greene. AppHealthCare is already involved in several initiatives around opioids that the DHHS grant funding will expand and build upon.
“We will continue to connect with the community to build greater capacity and partnerships so resources can continue to be available to those who need them,” Greene said. “It is going to take a whole community approach, with each person and agency doing their part, to tackle the issue of drug use and misuse in our community.”
Greene said that the work it has been conducting is carried out by N.C. Peer Support Specialists. These initiatives include working with justice-involved individuals in Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany county jails; connecting people who use drugs to resources such as treatment; assisting those who use drugs to navigate government systems that include Child Protective Services, Department of Social Services and the criminal justice system; providing Narcan training to local community agencies and law enforcement; as well as providing “InsideOut Dad Guide to Family Ties” training to male inmates in Alleghany.
The InsideOut training helps incarcerated fathers learn the importance of getting in touch and staying in touch with their family as well as how to create stronger ties between themselves and their children and the mother of their children, Hill said. She added that research shows that by connecting incarcerated fathers to their children, they are motivated to maintain good behavior to keep visiting rights as well as have a higher likelihood of staying out of jail/prison.
AppHealthCare also helps to coordinate and respond to the post-overdose response team in Watauga County. AppHealthCare Community Health Services Director Donna Hill said that Ashe and Alleghany counties do not currently have PORTs, but that the agency hopes to help change that. She added that some things may be in the works through the Ashe Substance Misuse Coalition led by Ashe Memorial Hospital.
Additionally, Greene said AppHealthCare is building trust and support in the community to help those who use drugs register with syringe exchange programs. While none of the three counties currently have syringe exchange programs, volunteers with Olive Branch Ministries provide services to residents in Watauga County, according to Hill. She added that the agency continues to educate the community on the importance and benefits of syringe exchange programs, but there is not a specific plan or timeframe of when one may open.
“We know that people who participate in (syringe exchange programs) are five times as likely to get treatment for (substance use disorder) than people who do not participate in these programs, and people who inject drugs and who have used an SEP regularly are nearly three times as likely to report reducing or stopping illicit drug injection as those who have never used an SEP,” according to AppHealthCare.
Not long after the 2017 state opioid plan was put in place, North Carolina for the first time in five years saw the number of unintentional opioid-related deaths among its residents fall by 5 percent in 2018, and emergency department visits for opioid-related overdose declined nearly 10 percent, according to DHHS.
For more information about the NC Opioid Action Plan and efforts to date, visit www.ncdhhs.gov/opioid-epidemic.