Collaboration seeks to reduce opioid overdoses throughout Michigan

The Grand Rapids Red Project and NEXT Distro have collaborated to reduce opioid-related overdose deaths across Michigan. People using opioids — and those who are in situations where friends or loved ones might overdose — can have life-saving naloxone mailed to their homes after completing a brief online training and enrollment. Opioids depress central nervous system activity, slowing or stopping breathing. Naloxone displaces the opioids from the brain’s opioid receptors so the person overdosing begins breathing normally again.

“We at Red Project have been distributing naloxone to people who use drugs since 2008,” says Steve Alsum, Red Project executive director. “We’ve had a pretty big impact here in West Michigan. Currently our overdose rate is one-half to one-third of that of the other most populated counties in the state. That’s primarily because of the level to which we made naloxone available to people who directly need it and have a very high chance of overdosing or witnessing an overdose situation.”

Funded by a grant from Vital Strategies, the partnership with Next Distro, which serves people in all 50 states, will broaden Red Project’s reach to people all across Michigan who can’t access naloxone through pharmacies, syringe exchange programs or other means. According to University of Michigan Health, between 30 and 40 Michiganders die from opioid overdose every week. Those numbers topped 40 a week during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, March through July 2020.  

“There are lots of areas in the state where there are no programs providing services like we do. Even in some areas where there are programs like ours, [some people] might not be able to legally access them,” Alsum says. “The website training is broken up into different modules that give an introduction to what’s going on with overdose, defines an overdose situation, talks about how naloxone will reduce an overdose from any opioid … and shows how to use naloxone to reverse an overdose situation.”

After completing the online training, people are sent four intramuscular and two intranasal naloxone delivery devices, four syringes, four vials of naloxone for intramuscular delivery, and fentanyl test strips for determining strength and composition of their opioid supply.

“Fentanyl, in and of itself, is not super dangerous. Doctors use fentanyl and tons of other opioids all the time and people don’t die in a medical setting,” Alsum explains. “What really makes fentanyl dangerous is that it’s being sold as an entirely unregulated substance. When people buy something out on the street, they don’t know what’s in it or what the potency is. What really makes it dangerous is that it is criminal and unregulated. A lot of harm could be undone by just decriminalizing opioids and starting to regulate them so people know exactly what it is they are getting.”  

According to its website, “Red Project is a safe place in which people can exercise their right to explore better health choices related to sexual activity and drug use, without judgement and without fear.” The nonprofit also provides free hepatitis C and HIV testing, HIV case management, HIV Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), and peer support groups. In addition, they offer syringes, equipment and safer shot supplies, which alone have reduced the number of HIV cases associated with injection drug use from 25% to less than 10%.  These services can be accessed at Grand Rapids Red Project’s five walk-in sites, open six days a week.
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