Even as we work together to overcome COVID-19, we still cannot ignore the suffering in our community caused by the still-present national opioid crisis. Dozens of residents of Salem have died from opioid overdose over the last two years. It can feel like a very complicated problem without an obvious solution.
Today, we want to offer a measure of hope to the residents of Salem, however. There are treatments for people with opioid use disorder and we know that they work.
You may have heard of the medication naloxone. Also known as Narcan, it can reverse an overdose as it is happening and prevent death. Emergency medical providers, doctors and nurses already use naloxone as part of their jobs, but people outside of the health care profession can — and should — too.
For people who use drugs, it is important to always carry naloxone and make sure that their friends and family know how to use it, since it is administered when someone has already lost consciousness. Naloxone is simple, portable and comes packaged in individual doses, ready to be administered quickly. As some illicit drugs have recently become contaminated with powerful chemicals that increase the chances of overdose, the need for naloxone has also increased; people often do not know that they have taken a deadly dose until it’s too late.
Thanks to recent changes to the law, anyone in Massachusetts can get naloxone and learn how to use it at most pharmacies, no prescription required. Naloxone can almost instantly prevent a death, yet many who would benefit the most from it still do not have access to it.
Besides this proven treatment for overdose, there are medications that reduce cravings, protect against future overdose, and help people with opioid use disorder achieve recovery long-term. These medications are methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone. Stigma around drug use, which has contributed to the strict federal regulations on who can prescribe these medications and where, may explain why only 1 in 5 people with opioid use disorder in the U.S. are currently receiving any of these medications. And communities like Salem bear the burden of this statistic.
We know that these treatments are effective in part thanks to research that has been conducted right here in Massachusetts over the last 25 years. Health care providers and scientists in and around Boston have been studying opioid use disorder for decades, developing the best treatments for this disease. It is also due in part to this ground-breaking work that Massachusetts was one of four states recently chosen by the National Institutes of Health for an innovative research project designed to bring programs and these effective medications to highly impacted communities across the state.
This brings us to our good news.
We are pleased to announce that Salem has been selected to participate in this program, called the HEALing Communities Study, which will make these life-saving treatments and other programs more readily available to the residents of our community.
One reason that we don’t yet offer extensive treatment for opioid use disorder in Salem is because the programs, staff, and training required to deliver them are expensive and individualized treatment takes time and resources, especially as it gets off the ground. The budgets of our health centers and hospitals are already stretched. Participating in the HEALing Communities study means that crucial funding will be provided to existing local coalitions, which will be responsible for selecting and establishing the treatments and programs most appropriate to Salem.
In the coming weeks and months, we will share more information about the HEALing Communities Study and how you can participate. Meanwhile, you can learn more at healtogetherma.org and access existing treatment resources at helplinema.org.
We remain hopeful that we can recover from the opioid crisis by supporting, with the best possible tools, our neighbors, friends, and family who need our help. Today we have made an important step advancing that process. But more work remains to be done.
Kim Driscoll is the mayor of Salem. Dr. Jeffrey Samet is principal investigator of the HEALing Communities Study, Massachusetts.