If not for hope
Hope Kits seek to save lives in Portage County
By Kana Coonce
PORTAGE COUNTY – In an effort to curb a nationwide upward trend of drug overdose-related deaths, Portage County has partnered with the Syringe Access Program to distribute free “Hope Kits” across the community.
Each Hope Kit, which can be picked up anonymously at a variety of clinics across the county as well as distributed via EMS, contains one box of Narcan – also known by its generic name, naloxone – which contains two doses and can be used to reverse the symptoms of an opioid overdose; five individually-packaged fentanyl test strips; five vials of water for use with the test strips; a card with instructions on test strip usage, which varies based on the substance being tested; a sheet with information on the Never Use Alone national helpline; a pocket CPR face shield; a pair of sterile gloves; and a business card with resources throughout Portage County, including CAP Services, Three Bridges Recovery, information on the county’s Syringe Access Program and 211, the addiction recovery helpline. All of these are stored in a ziplock bag for ease of storage and portability.
“The real goal of these Hope Kits is ideally to get them into the hands of those who need it,” said Vanessa Kowalski, community health planner with Portage County Health and Human Services, “but it’s also to open that conversation up and reduce the stigma of substance abuse in Portage County.”
Between 2019 and 2020, Portage County saw a 33 percent rise in overdose deaths according to the Portage County Mental Health & Recovery Board, the majority of which involved drugs laced with fentanyl. Fentanyl is the leading cause of overdose deaths in Wisconsin, as it can easily be laced into a variety of substances, is potent even in small quantities and cannot be detected without the use of a test strip.
Drug overdose deaths are on an upward trend nationwide. Last year, the United States saw a record high of 100,000 drug overdose deaths across the country.
For this reason, Kowalski advises using Narcan in any case of potential exposure.
“I would always administer narcan because there is a 99 percent chance that there is a fentanyl derivative (in any illicitly acquired substance,)” she said.
The Hope Kits program is one of many programs that are being introduced throughout the state as part of a bipartisan effort to combat the opioid crisis.
This year, Wisconsin received $31 million of a $400 million award following the settlement of a multistate lawsuit against four major pharmaceutical companies alleged to have fanned the national opioid crisis.
After collecting input from hundreds of Wisconsinites and medical experts, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) released its official budget for the year, which will be used to address root causes of opioid abuse, provide evidence-based substance use prevention education, enhance harm reduction, expand treatment options and provide direct support to people with substance abuse disorder and their families.
In March, Gov. Tony Evers signed into law a bill decriminalizing the possession and use of fentanyl test strips.
As of October, DHS had distributed over 120,600 test strips to organizations statewide.
Kowalski has no illusions that Hope Kits will spur people struggling with substance abuse to seek treatment, but she emphasizes its importance all the same; if even one person’s life is saved, Kowalski believes the program is worth it.
“This is a harm reduction approach,” said Kowalski, who points out that we also use harm reduction strategies in other aspects of our lives, such as in the instance of brushing teeth to prevent gum disease or wearing a hard hat to a construction job. “It’s essentially preventing a preventable death. We’re looking at meeting these clients where they’re at, in case they’re using but not ready for treatment.”
Only around 13 percent of people with drug abuse disorders received treatment in 2020. As anyone who has themselves struggled or had loved ones who struggled with substance abuse knows, even those who seek treatment usually need to repeat the process multiple times before they are able to see meaningful change and treatment programs are not easily accessible to everyone.
However, as long as there is life, there is hope. Even a few months into the program, the community has already seen positive results.
We did have a lot of individuals who came into the center who were very appreciative of having these kits and kind of wondered, ‘where have these been this entire time?’” Kowalski said of the program’s initial pilot launch in late October.
“We did have someone anonymously call in to our public help line and share that one of their loved ones had overdosed and had a Hope Kit and was able to be revived and actually went into treatment,” she said. “Just hearing that success story is enough to push us to persevere.”
If you or a loved are struggling with addiction and would like help, call 211 to connect with an expert who can provide you with a comprehensive list of your local resources and is available 24/7, stop by your local clinic or visit or contact the Ruth Gilfry Center, located at 817 Whiting Ave., Stevens Point, via phone at 715-345-5350 or email at [email protected]