In the world of drug addiction treatment, the term “harm reduction” basically means just as it sounds — strategies to reduce the potential for harmful outcomes from drug abuse or misuse that can range from disease to death.
When it comes to the opioid epidemic raging across the nation, harm reduction can mean something as simple as exchanging dirty needles for sterile ones.
But there’s more to instituting harm reduction strategies than preparing to start a syringe program, and that’s why the Howard County health department is asking organizations and residents for input at a Harm Reduction Summit on Sept. 6.
The daylong conference will be held at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center in Columbia. Preregistration is required.
“We don’t want to just have a needle exchange program in Howard County; we want something that’s more comprehensive,” said Dr. Maura Rossman, county health officer.
“There needs to be community buy-in or this [program] will not work,” she said, adding she expects the health department will use community input to develop a plan in the next six months.
Harm reduction serves to “get people ready or able to accept treatment by keeping them disease-free and alive,” Rossman said.
“We want to reach out to people and meet them where they are by providing care and compassion while also reducing the chance of them getting a chronic disease.
“But we never lose sight of the fact that we hope to get them into treatment, and this summit will help us to figure out what the best approaches are in Howard County,” she said. “No one size fits all.”
One of the summit’s speakers will be Carlo DiClemente, director of the Center for Community Collaboration at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
A Columbia resident, DiClemente is also a retired professor in the school’s psychology department, where his area of study has been addiction and health behavior change.
DiClemente’s talk, “Stages of Change,” will be based in part on the second edition of his book, “Addiction and Change: How Addictions Develop and Addicted People Recover,” published in January.
Harm reduction “is about reducing risk for people who are not yet ready to make the big change” of quitting drugs completely, he said.
DiClemente summed up the phased-in steps that characterize a comprehensive program: “It’s about getting the change you can get, while waiting for the change you want.”
Harm reduction programs use a nonjudgmental approach to encourage drug users to take baby steps toward a goal of ending drug abuse or misuse, he said.
Since swapping dirty needles for clean ones reduces the chances of contracting an infectious disease, drug users frequently see the benefit of such a program and agree to participate, he said.
Making that start can serve to build trust and become a catalyst for taking more steps, such as being tested for HIV, he said.
“You gain contact with people you wouldn’t have had contact with otherwise,” DiClemente pointed out, “and you figure out how to make an inroad.”
There are community members who view such programs as condoning drug use instead of working actively to curtail it. That’s why it’s important to have a community conversation, he said.
“We’re trying to change the narrative,” DiClemente said.
“You can’t just say, ‘Don’t do it,’ and you can’t just throw medication at someone,” he said. “For people to stop using and rebuild their lives takes a long time.”
Other speakers at the forum include Louise Vincent, an expert in harm reduction and director of the North Carolina-based Urban Survivors Union, along with representatives of the county and Baltimore city health departments.
The conference will conclude with overdose response and prevention training. Kits containing Narcan, a drug that counteracts the effects of an opioid overdose, will be available.
The county’s harm reduction summit was funded by money from a $290,000 state grant awarded in July, said Lisa DeHernandez, public information officer for the county health department.
All state jurisdictions were awarded grant money by the Maryland Department of Health’s Prevention and Health Promotion Administration to hold individual summits to determine what will work best in their communities, she said.
The most recent statistics on opioid use were released by the county police department Monday. As of Aug. 28, there have been 31 fatal opioid overdoses and 131 nonfatal overdoses in 2018, according to Sherry Llewellyn, the county police department’s director of public affairs.
The number of fatal overdoses is subject to change due to pending autopsy results for opioids and/or other substance, Llewellyn noted.
The county is keeping residents informed about the state of the opioid crisis in Howard County in other ways, such as an insert in water and sewer bills that were mailed in July.
The insert compares the numbers of opioid-related deaths across a three-year period — from 18 in 2015 to 40 in 2016 and climbing to 51 in 2017 — and notes that 80 percent of opioid-related fatalities in 2017 involved fentanyl, a powerful drug that is often added to opioids without users’ knowledge.
Lists of the types of opioids and their possible side effects also appear on the insert, along with a recommendation that those in need of help contact the nonprofit Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia at 410-531-6677 or 800-422-0009.
A sign in front of Howard County Fire Station 2 in Ellicott City, at Old Columbia Pike and Montgomery Road, displays a running tally of opioid overdoses and fatalities in the county.
It’s the only county fire station where such a sign is located, according to a fire and rescue department spokesperson, who said it’s been met with mixed reviews from residents, some of whom think it paints a bad image of the county.
But such measures, combined with the upcoming summit, aim to ensure all residents know that the opioid crisis is impacting all of Howard County, from drug users to their families to first responders.
“This is everyone’s problem,” Rossman said, “and we want to leave no rock unturned.”
If you go
The Howard County Harm Reduction Summit is open to the public and will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 6, at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center, 7246 Cradlerock Way in Columbia. Preregistration is required for the free program, which includes lunch. For tickets, go to eventbrite.com.