HUNTINGTON — In August 2016, 27 people experienced an opioid overdose in four hours within Huntington city limits, an incident that launched the city into national headlines in the peak of the opioid epidemic, further branding it as the epicenter of the problem.
It was realized that none of those 27 individuals — or anyone else who overdosed in the city — had been referred to treatment services, which placed overdose patients back into the vicious cycle of substance abuse disorder.
The solution to connect patients to treatment was the Quick Response Team, which has been operating since December 2017.
QRT members are celebrating evidence of its successes in its first full year of operation — that which can be quantified in charts and the personal victories that are merely anecdotal.
The original QRT model was put in place in 2014 in Colerain Township, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati with about 60,000 residents. This pilot team visited Huntington in February 2017 to present their model after city leadership began searching for an answer to its ever-growing problem following the August 2016 mass-overdose incident.
In September 2017, the city was awarded two grants — DHHS ($1.05 million) and the DOJ ($300,000) — to fuel the QRT over three years. The funding was secured by the Huntington Mayor's Office of Drug Control Policy along with local law enforcement, jail officials, health care providers, addiction recovery centers, the church community and Marshall University.
Colerain Township's model has been adapted to best fit Huntington's needs.
"We needed to bring out the big guns," said Larresca Cox, QRT team leader.
The team that visits the clients consists of one law enforcement officer from the Huntington Police Department, one recovery coach from Recovery Point or Prestera, a paramedic (Cox) and a member of the faith community, all out of uniform. The "big guns" Cox referred to include Marshall University, the area hospitals and city officials, who all work together with the QRT.
The QRT collects the information off of the previous day's overdose calls that Cabell County EMS responds to. The team goes to the overdose patient's place of residence within 72 hours of an overdose to connect the client to treatment services and offer resources to them and their families.
Connie Priddy, QRT coordinator, said the QRT acts as a bridge to resources, linking patients to the services they need.
"Before that, we were in our offices waiting patiently for people to come to us seeking treatment," Priddy said. "I think we learned a valuable lesson: People wanted help, they just didn't know where to turn."
The healthcare system and substance abuse treatment landscape is difficult to understand and navigate, Priddy said, even for her, and she's been a nurse for more than 35 years. She said many of the patients are eligible for Medicaid and don't know it. That is where the QRT comes in – in their conversations with the patients, they break down treatment options as well as insurance coverage.
Priddy said at first, the team did not know what to expect, but were floored when people started willingly opening their doors to them.
"They were really receptive that someone was out there coming to their house, and they were surprised that someone was out there to help them," Priddy said.
In the QRT's first year from December 2017 to December 2018, they responded to 1,036 individuals who needed services, including those on overdose calls from the EMS database and those referred by friends or family members.
Out of those referrals, the QRT successfully contacted 495 individuals. Making contact with individuals depends on a number of factors. The EMS charts list both the address where the overdose occurs and the address on an individual's identification, if it is available. Many times, the individual does not live at the address where the overdose occurred, and identification may not be up to date. The QRT members will then ask around for tips as to where the individual may be located.
The QRT successfully referred 148 of those individuals into treatment, about a 30 percent success rate in people actually contacted. Sometimes, once the individual agrees to be taken to treatment, someone close to the person will also ask to be taken.
Cox said the team assesses each individual's treatment needs. An inpatient treatment setting is not always appropriate for the patient.
Once the word began to spread that Huntington's QRT model was working, the calls started rolling in from other cities across the country looking for a solution to the opioid epidemic in their own towns. Both Cox and Priddy said they never imagined the system would gain that much attention.
The American Red Cross heard what the QRT was doing and donated naloxone and disposable CPR kits for the QRT to leave with family members of their clients – these train the families to be able to deliver rescue breaths should they be needed during an overdose.
In the summer of 2018, the QRT added a faith element to the team, incorporating religious leaders from around the community in their house calls. Fred McCarty, pastor at Walnut Hills Church of the Nazarene and part-time QRT member, said his role is to follow the lead of the client and observe what they will be receptive to.
"If they want prayer, I don't pray for them, I pray with them" McCarty said. "If they have something they want to pray about, I guide them."
In addition, Cox said the faith community's introduction to the team has added an extra limb to reach out and connect with the community.
"We can't go anywhere with the pastors without them knowing someone," Cox said.
"We realize the drug is not the problem, and I think people need healing in many aspects," McCarty said. "The drug is a symptom of a more inward spiritual problem. When they brought in the faith element, it gave recognition that it's an all-encompassing problem."
With faith leaders reaching out to people they know, either from their congregation or otherwise, has allowed the QRT to get those people into treatment. But, those numbers are not counted in the overdose call to QRT visit to treatment statistics that measure the team's success.
"You can look at our numbers and how many people we've gotten into treatment, but success is also harm reduction, getting back in touch with family, going back to church and going along the path from where you are to where you want to be. Sometimes, that's not just inpatient or outpatient treatment," McCarty said.
Referrals for a QRT visit do not need to be precluded by an overdose and can be made any time by calling 304-526-8541.
Follow reporter Megan Osborne on Twitter and Facebook @megosborneHD.