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In search of a new model for addiction fight

Some believe COVID-19 response can point them in right direction

WHEELING — When Operation Warp Speed took aim at a virus that sprang to Goliath-sized in early 2020 — going on to kill more than 500,000 Americans in a single year — the big-funding method seemed to work. Vaccines were generated. Clinics popped up like dandelions. The dying slowed.

Yet, that other giant of a healthcare problem — an opioid epidemic that has killed about 800,000 Americans since it began in the 1990s — continues to rack up deaths, with overdose fatalities accelerating as pandemic deaths slowly fade.

Could our seeming success with COVID offer a model for an all-out war on unparalleled addiction? A couple of area educators with enough federal grant funding to train dozens of workers to fight such a fight at little to no financial costs to the students themselves would sure like to find out.

A SMALL ARMY

In January, just as COVID vaccines were making inroads in the Ohio Valley and beyond, four students began a novel program at West Virginia Northern Community College. It’s the Opioid-Impact Family Support Program — funded through a grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration/Department of Health and Human Services. The idea is to train workers — some of whom are in long-term recovery themselves — to help others out of the opioid-addiction pit.

Four students might not sound like a lot, but even a small stone might be just right for a David-sized sling, according to professor Kathy Herrington. The long-term educator in psychology, social work and human services manages the academic side of the training.

And, she expects significantly more students to be in the pipeline come fall, as the COVID cloud lifts and full-scale classes can begin. The program will produce its first round of work-ready individuals in May 2022.

“There’s such a need for folks to work with recovery programs,” said Herrington, ticking off a list of multiple agencies in Ohio County alone that are already tackling opioid addiction but need more trained employees.

The staffing need is so great, she noted, that those who complete the new program – which can be pursued as an associate’s degree or as a skill set that can stand on its own or be added to other credentials – are practically assured jobs.

She hopes to train and send out a small army.

Some will study for as little as one year and will move right into the job market as substance abuse intervention technicians or peer recovery support specialists, she explained. The latter requires personal experience with addiction, at least two years of sobriety and a state certification exam.

Others will be pursuing an associate’s degree in applied science through a two-year program. At the end of that program, graduates can qualify as substance abuse intervention specialists, she said. After an additional year of full-time employment in the field, they can pursue further credentialing as prevention specialists.

Herrington said the various tracks inside the program will likely also serve those who might already have more advanced professional credentials. She suspects the skill set component – which can be completed full or part time and largely online – will particularly appeal to professionals already working in courts, mental health, nursing and criminal justice. The opioid crisis is that broad.

“They can’t escape from it if they’re working in social work or mental health or healthcare anywhere,” Herrington said.

Or, education. Herrington noted two of her initial four students have personal recovery experience. She said that can add something really special to their work in addition to moving them further down the recovery road themselves.

“For years, it has been a common (understanding) that people who have been through it (opioid addiction) know … the obstacles and challenges,” Herrington said of trainees coming alongside those still in the grip of addiction and offering hope. “It is possible to get out of it and be sober and go on to have a career and life and family.”

Herrington said recovered addicts also understand the scope of change that those they are working with may face. “It (recovery) affects their whole life … who their friends are, where they go.”

She believes peer recovery programs are also a big step that suggests the nation is poised to stop demonizing addiction — instead thinking of it as an illness that is often associated with self medicating for depression and anxiety.

SLINGSHOT SPEED

It will take more than a small army of trainees to fill the gap, noted Brianna Hickman, who is managing the business side of the program. Speed is also a factor and, as with Operation Warp Speed, funding can really move things along.

“This is a specialized grant,” Hickman said of the $1.5 million that’s backing the initial three years of the program. “I don’t want to say it’s for out-the-door quickly (but) there’s a one-year program and a two-year program. That’s pretty quick.”

She noted opioid-related deaths accelerated in 2020, when COVID-sparked isolation increased despair and decreased access to help programs. Even before COVID, federal health statistics showed West Virginia had the highest death rate per capita in the nation.

“It really is a critical need in the community,” Hickman said. “The sooner we get students enrolled and completing the program, that’s going to be better for everyone involved.”

Early rounds of local enrollees will be tapping into funding earmarked specifically for Northern, Hickman said. The community college is the only school in West Virginia participating in this grant, but other programs with varied sources of funding are also cropping up elsewhere in the state.

The local grant package includes access to specialized financial aid that will cover all educational costs for many students, who can also apply for traditional tuition assistance, Hickman said. Additionally and unusually, it also includes stipends aimed at reducing the need for outside employment during studies, thus enabling faster program completion.

“Asking a student to forgo their actual income … that’s a big cost to someone,” Hickman said of the need for a stipend as the program attempts to roll out workers at speed.

Current grant funding remains in place until 2024, she added. After that, it is hoped the training program will become self-sustaining and will remain in place until there is no longer a need for additional intervention and prevention workers.

Hickman said she suspects such a day is not coming anytime soon, but sees the program itself and early interest in it as a good sign that the battle is on.

“It matters so much. Just in seeing people really care,” Hickman said of the type of people who are enrolling so far. “It’s a showing of empathy whether recovery is their personal story or not … It’s great thinking someone may be a light in the community.”

For more information about enrollment or program-specific financial aid, contact Hickman at 304-214-8998 or by email at bhickman@wvncc.edu.

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