COAT members saluted for helping stem overdoses

Team members who are making COAT more successful every year in the raging battle against drugs were honored with county proclamations last week.

At a news conference, County Executive Bob Culver thanked them “for their extraordinary work in reducing the number of overdoses” and guiding individuals into treatment.

Receiving proclamations were Christen Phillips, the first team member of the Community Outreach Addiction Team, Katie Bullis, Tasha Jamison, Kelly McColligan; Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office Deputy 1st Class Matthew Clark, Deputy 1st Class Jeff Heath, Deputy 1st Class Glenn Hilliard, 1st Sergeant Jessica Murphy and Peninsula Regional Medical Center’s Emergency Department.

COAT launched last year as a partnership among Culver, Salisbury Mayor Jake Day, Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis, Police Chief Barbara Duncan, former State’s Attorney Matt Maciarello, Peninsula Regional Medical Center and Lori Brewster, director of the health department.

At the event, Brewster praised the relationship between the county and PRMC and announced the health department has been certified by the National Association of County and City Health Officials. On display was a Certificate of Promising Practice from NACCHO honoring the health department for “its outstanding and innovative program Coat Team: Response to Opioid Crisis.”

“We are glad to have had the opportunity to work with the various partners. The program we developed, I can’t say enough about the members and how they worked to make it a success,” she said.

So far, 209 calls have been received for service since last June. Of those, 188 have met with recovering addicts and 105, or 56 percent, have enrolled in treatment programs. The national average is 20 percent.

“We are doing a very, very good job and I think it’s because we are that bridge to treatment,” Brewster said.

State’s Attorney Ella Disharoon, who was appointed after Maciarello was sworn in as a Wicomico County Circuit Court judge last summer, said recovering addicts who respond to police calls for overdoses, through COAT, the acronym for Community Outreach Addiction Team, are instrumental because they “understand the needs of individuals that overdose better than any of us could.”

“We’ve seen the number of deaths go down since the COAT team has been in effect … we would much rather get these people into treatment so they can become productive members of society instead of just ending up in jail. Deaths have gone down. In 2014 and ’15 we had 63 overdoses and 10 fatalities. In 2016 we had 216 overdoses and seven deaths. That’s where we saw the huge influx of fentanyl,” Disharoon said.

So far this year, there have been 83 overdoses and seven fatalities.

“Although we are not at zero, we are working on helping these people, helping them get driver’s licenses and Social Security cards,” she said. Obtaining necessary documents can be difficult for someone caught in the web of drug abuse.

Lt. Rich Wiersberg of the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office said the sheriff couldn’t attend because he was celebrating his daughter’s graduation from Salisbury University, but Lewis was instrumental in forming COAT.

Thanks to the program, the community perceives law enforcement officers as trustworthy, as those they can turn to, Wiersberg said. “We’re seeing our deputies especially, who are not official members of the COAT team, talking to people who are asking ‘How can I get help?’”

Day said he is “heartened that as the COAT Team has stood up we went to 27 overdoses in the first quarter of 2017. I know April was a tough month with 37 overdoses but I think we are looking at a better 2017 than 2016, as long as we continue this way,” he said.

“This approach is remarkable and makes us a community leader. In the state of Maryland this is not the first time we’ve led. I think it’s going to be a national leader. We’re feeling the positive impact. The numbers are down slightly and we’re very grateful for that,” he said, adding officials in other towns are not enjoying the same success.

“We’re going to become that shining star to teach other communities how to address this problem,” he said.

“We took it by storm,” Culver said. “We’ve gone into it and done what we could do. Lori, my heartfelt thanks for what you’ve done for this program.”

Earlier this year, Rick Brueckner, senior assistant state’s attorney and heroin reduction strategist for Wicomico County, told the Salisbury Independent the recovering addicts are crucial.

“What the COAT member can do, which is the most successful thing, is, the COAT person can look that other drug addict in the eye and say, ‘Hey, I know how you feel right now. You just died. You just got brought back with Narcan. I know what it’s like to use drugs. I know what it’s like to sell my body on the street for drugs. Would you like to get out of this?’

“The COAT person sits by their side and helps get them in treatment. They have a brother in arms,” he said, adding they sit “knee to knee and eyeball to eyeball” with addicts.

Anyone can tell an addict he understands the pandemonium, but nobody but another addict can truly relate.

“When you see a health officer, thank them for what they are doing because it is above and beyond what they are getting paid for,” Culver told the audience at the press conference.

When COAT began, “It was so many people we wanted to concentrate on,” he said.

“Based on all the history, this has turned out to be such a successful program. It was just what Wicomico County needed at the time. It was what the state needed at the time,” he said. He thanked Maciarello, who was in court and couldn’t attend.

When COAT was first announced, Maciarello said community leaders were “on the front lines” against the drug war.

“Police respond to the overdoses but we deal with the moms and dads and with the community. It has a tremendous impact on our quality of life. We want to let the citizens know everything we’re doing to combat the drug problem,” he said.

Lewis said heroin comes from Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. He traveled there, deep in the Andes Mountains, and said it was “an eye-opening experience to see the magnitude of what they are seeing down there.”

Although the United States comprises only 7 percent of the world’s population, Americans use 68 percent of the world’s drugs, including marijuana, heroin and cocaine, the sheriff said.

It’s a $360 billion annual industry. One unaltered brick of heroin costs $600,000 to $900,000, he said.

“Wicomico County is a beautiful county. It’s gorgeous. But we are no different from other counties. Nobody is immune to this problem, including me,” he said. At the time, his 38-year-old niece was in jail awaiting a court hearing for a drug offense.

In the county, 87 percent of crimes are directly linked to those who are addicted, Lewis said. “It’s a major problem. We are addressing it in a number of ways that others are not.”

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