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How harm reduction prevents overdose deaths

JOLT Foundation Director Chris Schaffner, left, talks with JOLT peer recruiter Angell Price inside the nonprofit's headquarters, 2203 N. Sheridan Rd.
Hannah Alani
JOLT Foundation Director Chris Schaffner, left, talks with JOLT peer recruiter Angell Price inside the nonprofit's headquarters, 2203 N. Sheridan Rd.

As opioid deaths across the country surged by 30% during the pandemic, Peoria County saw a decrease of 50%.

Katy Endress, the director of epidemiology and clinical services at the Peoria City/County Health Department thinks this might be thanks to harm reduction.

She said opioid deaths steadily rose since the early 2000s, but began to decrease in 2018. Deaths only began to rise again last year due to the advent of xylazine, an animal tranquilizer which doesn’t respond to naloxone.

“We saw the decrease in overdose deaths that corresponded with the opening of the Jolt Harm Reduction facility here in Peoria,” Endress said. “And we saw that trend continued to decrease while surrounding areas were seeing increases in the early days of the pandemic.”

The Jolt Foundation offers harm reduction services, such as clean needle exchange and naloxone distribution.

Jolt program director Chris Schaffner said the decrease in deaths is proof that harm reduction is more effective than punitive measures to reduce deaths.

He says even as xylazine causes deaths to rise, it would still be much worse if it wasn't for the services being offered.

Jolt also offers medication-assisted treatment for people with addiction and helps distribute food, tents and clothes to people who are homeless in Peoria. They moved to a building across the street from the health department last year, which allows quicker access to medical services.

Schaffner said people have not been supportive of harm reduction services in the past, but the pandemic has begun to change people’s views.

“When you think about COVID, or pandemic mitigation, that's just a fancy word, it's a public health word for harm reduction,” he said. “Wearing a mask: Harm reduction. Socially distancing: Harm Reduction, you're reducing the potential risk.”

Heather Polkinghorne and Doug Stacy have seen the results first hand. The couple struggled with addiction for years and were homeless, but recently marked their first month of sobriety.

They said it’s because of the support they received from the Jolt that they were successful. Polkinghorne said the services they offer to people with addiction and people who are homeless help keep people alive.

“Just knowing that there was somebody that was going to come and check on you every single day and just make sure that you weren't hungry and that you were loved is a big part of the reason that most of the people that are homeless have are still with us and still okay,” Polkinghorne said.

Doug Stacy and Heather Polkinghorne said the Jolt foundation helped them both on their journey to sobriety.
Camryn Cutinello
Doug Stacy and Heather Polkinghorne said the Jolt foundation helped them both on their journey to sobriety.

They both now live in Oxford housing, which provides a safe place to live for people going through rehab and are now helping others find sobriety. So far they have helped six friends get into rehab.

Stacy said harm reduction and showing kindness to people with addiction is more effective than prison.

“It’s safer to approach it with a friendly hand and a friendly face,” he said. “We're doing all these things for these people like getting them into rehabs, getting them into Oxford houses. Whatever we got to do to get them safe and in a better environment. You got to take the person from the environment before you can change their habits.”

He said when people go to prison they don’t get the necessary help.

“You go to jail, you're 90 days clean because you've been in jail for 90 days,” Stacy said. “You get out there on the street. Here's what happens: You see the same patterns, the same behavior that just keeps repeating itself in front of you. You eventually fall into that rut and you become the addict.”

The Illinois General Assembly passed multiple measures to expand harm reduction services during the legislative session.

These include bills which allow fentanyl-testing strips to be sold over the counter and legislation changing the curriculum on opioids in Illinois public schools.

But other proposals stalled, including legislation which would allow the creation of drug overdose prevention sites in Chicago. The sites provide a safer place for drug usage by having resources such as clean needles and naloxone readily available.

They also offer food, housing and healthcare assistance.

Schaffner said they are successful in Canada, and are one of the most effective ways to prevent deaths.

“Overdose prevention sites save lives,” Schaffner said. “They've been proven to do that around the globe. There has never been a fatal overdose at any of these sites. And so this should not be controversial. We already have public consumption sites that are legal, we call them bars.”

State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford (D-Chicago), the bill’s chief sponsor, said these sites will prevent deaths.

Ford said the bill, which can still be passed in the new session starting in January, would give Chicago the authority to open the sites. It would be up to the Chicago City Council to actually go forward with the project.

“The overdose prevention site is not just the place where people go to use drugs,” Ford said. “The overdose prevention sites are medical settings and their social service settings where people are going there because they need mental health support.”

If opened, the sites would be considered a pilot and could be expanded to other counties if successful.

People interested in helping can donate to Jolt or volunteer with the foundation.

Jolt and Trillium Place both offer naloxone training. Polkinghorne said carrying naloxone is one of the most effective ways to help, because you never know when someone could need it.

“I have myself reversed upwards of 15 to 20 people personally myself with both injection Narcan and nasal Narcan,” she said. “I have a nasal on my keychain in my purse. I always have it with me.”

Camryn Cutinello is a reporter and digital content director at WCBU. You can reach Camryn at cncutin@illinoisstate.edu.
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