PORTSMOUTH — While police investigate a suspected overdose death on Tuesday, state officials and a local overdose survivor are planning "harm reduction" programs aimed at saving lives and reducing diseases associated with opioid use.
Tuesday's death occurred in Margeson Apartments where a 40-year-old man was found with evidence suggesting an overdose, said police Lt. Darrin Sargent. The cause of death will not be confirmed until police receive results from the state crime lab and medical examiner's office, he said.
Statewide data provided to the Governor's Executive Council this week show that in 2017, there were 395 opioid-related deaths in New Hampshire, 2,774 documented uses of the opioid-reversal drug Narcan and 6,684 emergency opioid-related hospital visits. That data was presented to the Executive Council in a report from the Department of Health and Human Services, with a request for approval of $143,875 to the University of New Hampshire, to launch a harm-reduction training program.
DHHS Commissioner Jeffrey Meyers wrote to the Executive Council that the money will be used to provide training and technical assistance to community-based organizations, as well as medical providers, "on harm reduction strategies that can be integrated into recovery programs." The funding comes from a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant, according to his report.
Meyers wrote, "New Hampshire is in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic" and ranked as having the third highest overdose rate in the country, with 39 people of every 100,000 overdosing. He reported that while there has not been an increase in the number of statewide HIV infections, "the proportion of individuals newly diagnosed with HIV who report injection drug use as a risk factor has increased."
The DHHS commissioner also reported that most people with new hepatitis C infections reported a history of intravenous drug use.
"These infections cannot only be deadly, but they are expensive to treat," Meyers wrote to the Executive Council. "They are also completely treatable through effective harm reduction strategies."
For those reasons, Meyers advocated for the New Hampshire training program to teach medical providers and community groups, who work with people with substance use disorder, how to minimize harm. The program is described as providing training for 150 people, in at least 50 locations across the state.
UNH was the only applicant that responded to a request for proposals by DHHS last fall, according to the report.
The Executive Council unanimously approved funding for the program by unanimous vote on Wednesday, said Gov. Chris Sununu's spokesperson Ben Vihstadt.
While the state program is being launched, overdose survivor and certified recovery support worker Ryan Fowler is continuing a harm reduction program he started in response to Seacoast drug deaths. In November, when Portsmouth police announced a fifth overdose death during 2018, Fowler began offering free fentanyl test strips, through his role at the Safe Harbor Recovery Center.
Law enforcement officials across the state have said fentanyl is mixed with heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine and is killing users.
Fowler announced he will host a Friday, March 15 "harm reduction and overdose prevention" seminar at Safe Harbor and said all are welcome.
"My hope is that we have a roomful of people who use drugs," he said, while also expressing hope that police officers, community members and families attend.
Fowler said his work is based on his "lived experience" and is offered in a peer-to-peer format. He has an office at Safe Harbor and also works full time for The Doorway at Granite Pathways in Manchester.
"With harm reduction, all drug-related death and disease is preventable," he said. "The foundation of harm reduction is education."
Fowler said he'll be distributing free fentanyl test strips which detect the drug's presence in street drugs. He said he'll also be distributing Narcan to anyone who wants it, along with instructions for how to administer it.
"It's a good way to come together and get questions answered," he said.
Friday's harm reduction event is free, starts at 6 p.m. and is at Safe Harbor's 865 Islington St. office in Portsmouth.