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Needle exchange program offers fentanyl test strips

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    Courtney Stewart, a licensed social worker with Northwest Ohio Syringe Services, discusses the new works and fentanyl test strips being distributed to users of opioids and other drugs Thursday, March 29, 2018, from the mobile needle exchange site located at the Talbot Center in East Toledo.

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    Courtney Stewart

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    Northwest Ohio Syringe Services has begun distributing fentanyl test strips to active users of opioids and other drugs. The exchange, a program through the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department, is part of a larger strategy of harm reduction to keep people with addiction issues healthy while using, and provide them with resources and help when they want to seek treatment.

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    Nurse Lisa Hawthorne-Price discusses the services she provides for clients Thursday, March 29, 2018, at the Northwest Ohio Syringe Services mobile exchange located at the Talbot Center in East Toledo.

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Nurse Lisa Hawthorne-Price discusses the services she provides for clients Thursday, March 29, 2018, at the Northwest Ohio Syringe Services mobile exchange located at the Talbot Center in East Toledo.

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Fentanyl has become the scourge of anyone trying to fight Ohio’s opioid epidemic: deadly in small quantities and appearing in an increasing number of fatal overdoses.

Users never can be sure what has been mixed with what they believe is heroin or cocaine after the drug is cut and sold several times. Now, Lucas County’s needle exchange program offers free fentanyl test strips that indicate the presence of fentanyl or similar substances.

“Fentanyl has been responsible for a majority of the overdoses we’ve seen lately and we don’t think that is going to change,” said Courtney Stewart, a licensed social worker with Northwest Ohio Syringe Services. “So we want to provide people with an option to test their purchase before injecting to see if they want to use it and then they are more empowered to make decisions from there.”

The strip, likened by some to a home pregnancy test for its rapid results showing one or two lines, allows users to test for the presence of fentanyl or similar synthetics in a number of drugs. 

“Two red lines means it’s negative for fentanyl, one red line means it’s positive for fentanyl,” Ms. Stewart said. “Based on what your result is, you have a decision to make.” 

VIDEO: Courtney Stewart and Lisa Hawthorne-Price on needle exchange program

Officials hope users discard that purchase, use less of it, or use in the presence of others with naloxone available to decrease the risk of overdosing. The test does not detect the amount of fentanyl in a substance but rather if it is present or not.

Fentanyl or its analogues were present in more than 65 percent of fatal opioid overdoses in 2016 across a 21-county region tested by the Lucas County Coroner’s Office. It marked the first year synthetic opioids killed more people than heroin, a stark increase from 2014 when only 9 percent of opioid overdoses involved fentanyl. 

Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin. And it’s not just in heroin purchases where fentanyl is showing up, but also in cocaine and other street drugs. 

Officials have distributed 132 of the fentanyl test strips so far, Ms. Stewart said, and they continue to hear from clients whose tests come up positive. She even had one man return to the exchange looking for help reading his test results. 

It was positive. 

“We would encourage people to test everything that they can,” she said. “Those people that did have a positive read, they said they are not going to continue buying from that dealer.”

The strips are part of a larger harm reduction strategy by Northwest Ohio Syringe Services, which also offers new syringes, naloxone, health screenings, HIV, hepatitis C, and pregnancy testing, safe sex materials, and recovery information to clients who walk through the doors.

“I consider us a carrot on a stick. We’ll get you in, get you what you need, but we’re also going to get you help too,” said Lisa Hawthorne-Price, a registered nurse with the program. 

Participants, who can remain anonymous and receive a unique identification number, have been coming at a rate of about 15 new people per month. 

“Our goal is to protect the health of [intravenous] drug users in the community and also improve their quality of life and help them eliminate any systemic or personal barriers they have to accessing care for recovery or behavioral health services,” Ms. Stewart said.

Critics of such harm reduction policies contend that they promote drug use, or in the case of fentanyl strips, help seek out fentanyl.

“The majority of people are wanting to protect themselves from overdose and I think that’s who is going to take that test home, more often than not. We don’t want people to guess. We want people to have the tools to use to get a more accurate result than to eyeball it,” she said. 

“If people are going to use a test like this to seek out fentanyl, we’re going to educate them on overdose prevention,” she said, including not using alone and being trained to administer naloxone. 

NOSS runs 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesdays at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 1201 Madison Ave., and Thursdays at the Talbot Center, 732 Main St.

Contact Lauren Lindstrom at llindstrom@theblade.com, 419-724-6154, or on Twitter @lelindstrom.

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