Arlington County has received just over $1 million in grants from both the federal government and the state to help fight the opioid epidemic.

The Department of Justice is providing about $900,000 to the county’s Department of Human Services to assist in improving access to treatment, identifying alternatives to incarnation, and to hire two full time staff to further help those being treated for substance abuse.

Virginia is granting $110,000 that will add a contracted nurse position and help continue to train police and DHS staff on techniques to best help those in need of treatment.

The grants will also help purchase more Narcan (Naloxone) kits.

Suzanne Somerville is with the Department of Human Services and will be overseeing how the grants will be used as the Bureau Chief for Residential and Specialized Clinical Services. She says the grants will allow the department to continue to build out programs that focus on harm reduction and “pre-arrest work.”

“[That’s] partnering with police… and working with folks who are having substance use issues,” Somerville says. “Or when they first bring them into the jail, looking to see if we can divert them and send them to treatment instead of incarceration.” 

She says that a large portion of the grants are going to hiring two full-time staff — a case manager and therapist — but a chunk is also going to help with sober living options.

There are four Oxford houses in Arlington, a self-supported program that houses those in recovery. Somerville says that a portion of the grants will help residents pay for these programs.

The opioid epidemic continues to ravage Arlington County. While 2017 remains the county’s worst year for incidents involving opioids, after a downturn in 2018 and 2019, last year saw a resurgence in opioid-related overdoses. There were more opioid related deaths in 2020 than 2018 and 2019 combined.

The pandemic is likely to blame for much of the resurgence.

“There are a lot of reasons why people have relapses,” says Somerville. “A lot of it does have to do with employment. A lot of our clients… work in the service industry and a lot of them lost their jobs.”

And 2021 is looking even more tragic and deadly. Somerville says since January 21, there have been six known overdoses in Arlington County, three of which were fatal.

For many, the first step in asking for help is the hardest. So, the county is attempting to lower the barrier for that.

It has established a confidential “warm line” for folks in crisis that is staffed with peers and those in recovery themselves. The number is 571-302-0327.

“They’ve been through this and they understand what it’s like to try to quit and all of the pressure that comes with it,” says Somerville.

Starting in April, all Arlington fire stations will become “safe stations” where residents can simply walk in and those there will initiate the process of getting them help.

There are also a number of upcoming training sessions for Arlington residents to learn how to administer Narcan.

These grants will assist the county in closing gaps in service, says Somerville, and provide quicker, more complete help to residents in need at a particularly hard time for all.

“It’s our job to help you connect to treatment and help you figure out how you can do better,” she said.

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