Unique partnership forms with common goal of saving lives

Published 8:30 am Sunday, February 19, 2023

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By Michelle Wagner, Public Health Educator, Dare County

The Dare County Department of Health & Human Services’ Recovery and Overdose Support Services (ROSS) and TJ’s Gas and Grill at 2197 Colington Road have recently teamed up to combat opioid-related overdoses and overdose deaths locally.

Since early December of 2022, ROSS peer support specialist Jesse Ruby has been making regular visits to the Colington convenience store to keep it stocked with the life-saving drug naloxone, a nasal spray medication that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose and is considered a front-line defense in the nation’s opioid crisis. Ruby also provides TJ’s with fentanyl test strips, which are small strips of paper that can detect the presence of fentanyl in other drugs and substances.

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Proven to avert drug overdoses and overdose deaths, both of these harm reduction tools – along with medicine lock boxes and other resources – are provided free to the public and are conveniently located at a small booth next to the cash register for customers who may need them or know of someone who does.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, is a major contributor to fatal and nonfatal overdoses in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl is on the drug market in different forms and is commonly mixed with drugs like heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, or made into pills that resemble other prescription opioids and benzodiazepines.

ROSS’s efforts at TJ’s are aimed at “getting help out to the locals” where they can easily access it, said Ruby.

“The Colington Harbour area is where a lot of us locals live, so when I started this work in harm reduction, I knew that was one of the spots I really wanted to target,” Ruby said. Ruby is also visiting dozens of convenience stores and other high-traffic establishments across the county to deliver these life-saving items.

The booth at TJ’s has been highly successful, with customers regularly taking advantage of the free single doses of naloxone and fentanyl test strips. “We put 24 single doses of naloxone out [one day] at 3 p.m. and they are gone by the next day at 2 p.m.,” Ruby noted.

TJ’s employee Cindy Swoope has been working closely with Ruby to see that these harm reduction tools get into the hands of those who need them – and said she’s been overwhelmed by the positive feedback and support she’s received from patrons.

“Props to TJ’s for giving out these tests” and “TJ’s saves lives” are just a few examples of the text messages Swoope has received since the naloxone and test strips became available at TJ’s. At the store, customers have made similar comments such as, “This might save my friend’s life.”

In the tight-knit community of Colington, Swoope points out that everybody knows and helps one another, and TJ’s cares about the community. The impact that fentanyl overdoses have had locally, she said, has been a big topic and the tools provided by ROSS “save lives … you don’t know who you are affecting but it is someone’s brother, mother, sister, kid.”

Being able to recognize the signs of an opioid overdose can save a life. Symptoms to look for in a potential overdose victim include small, constricted pinpoint pupils; falling asleep or losing consciousness; slow, weak or absence of breathing; choking or gurgling sounds; limp body; cold and/or clammy skin; and discolored skin, especially in lips and nails.

Part of the Dare County Department of Health & Human Services, ROSS is designed to respond to community members struggling with substance use and misuse, mental health and trauma challenges. Living in recovery from mental illness and/or substance use disorder themselves, ROSS’s peer support specialists offer support to others who can benefit from their lived experiences by providing coaching, mentoring, consultation and support. These specialists promote self-advocacy, self-direction and provide information and education.

ROSS also supports families and friends of those who struggle.

Any Dare County resident, business or agency can reach out to ROSS peer support specialists Katy Haslar and Jesse Ruby via the confidential email address RecoveryServices@DareNC.gov.