Combatting the opioid crisis is an ongoing fight, but now Waterbury is getting a boost in that battle.
The city is receiving $900,000 in federal grant funding to cut down opioid overdoses and deaths. It is important funding because across Connecticut, opioid deaths increased by 14 percent in 2020.
Health officials and advocates say the "Warm Hand-Off" program that is getting this funding is making a big difference
Taking on a consuming fight against opioid addiction is something Rushnee Vereen-Penix understands.
"Mine started with a worker's comp injury, where I was prescribed medications, and then later on became addicted to them," she said. "It impacted my life personally and professionally."
Overcoming it taught her to talk openly and help others in the throes of addiction. She is now an Overdose Response Technician, or an ORT. These are overdose survivors who respond to emergencies right alongside Waterbury Police and EMTs.
"When you are in those situations, able to share that, listen I know what you're going through, I understand or I'm in recovery myself, a lot of times you see the exhale, a sigh of relief," Vereen-Penix said. "I have individuals open up more."
The federal investment in the "Warm Hand-Off" program will let Waterbury hire a new ORT, along with a part-time staff member for data analysis.
However, responding to crisis is only part of the solution. The program also focuses on prevention.
"We make sure that we're not missing anyone in the cracks," Samuel Bowens, Prevention Section Chief for the Waterbury Health Department, said. "And make sure that we provide the appropriate services, whether support, or if they're ready for treatment. And if not, sometimes just as simple as just providing them with some safety materials, in the lock, fentanyl test strips, and some literature."
The team helps thousands of people each month, and they say data reflects the program's success.
"In State of Connecticut numbers have gone up," Bowens said. "Within the city of Waterbury, we've seen a decrease in our number as far as fatalities are concerned."
The Waterbury Health Department reports that since the program launched in 2019, fatal overdoses decreased from 109 in 2019, to 94 in 2020, down to just 70 in 2021.
Director of Public Health Aisling McGuckin says this resource is crucial during the pandemic.
"All of those pressures that are affecting all of us are compounded when you have a substance use disorder," McGuckin said. "I think that folks have been less able to find resources during the pandemic, or find the time to seek out resources, because of issues with employment and all of the other concomitant factors."
It's a long fight, but one that survivor Vereen-Penix says is against a pandemic of its own.
"It is important because it is life or death," she said. "It's impacting age groups from 18 on up. So it to me it's a pandemic, and it's extremely important."