Democratic Governor Maura Healey announced this week Massachusetts will become the first state in the nation to fund a hotline aimed at preventing drug overdoses. The move comes after 2022 was the most lethal year for overdoses in the commonwealth ever, with over 2,350 people – disproportionately from Black and Brown communities – dead. The $350,000 going to the Massachusetts Overdose Prevention Helpline will create fulltime jobs at the previously volunteer-driven organization, including a full-time operator and call center coordinator, part-time medical director, research director, data analyst, and program assistant. It will also fund promotion of the service. The commonwealth says that so far in 2023, the helpline has supervised almost 600 use events, with a hold time of under 15 seconds. WAMC spoke with Bureau of Substance Addiction Services Director Deirdre Calvert to find out more.

CALVERT: It’s a Massachusetts Overdose Prevention Helpline, which uses a spotting model to help prevent fatal overdoses. So, trained helpline operators will stay on the line when people use, and either alert a predetermined bystander that has been discussed before or local first responders to intervene if the caller becomes unresponsive. And the reason this is really important is in 2022, we hit a all-time high in Massachusetts of overdose deaths- 2,357, which is a 2.5% increase. And we know that from our SUDORS – which is State Unintentional Drug Overdose Reporting System, SUDORS – from 2021, that 92% of all overdose deaths occurred in private settings, and were 90% unwitnessed. So, we know that this is going to be an incredible tool in the toolbox to hopefully intervene in overdose deaths.

WAMC: Now, it’s $350,000 going into the program- What is that going to do to shore up or bolster the helpline as it exists today?

Well, it’s going to help with advertising, and it’s going to help with getting more trained people to answer the phones. So that’s really what we need to we need, to get the word out there that there is this number, and we also have to make sure that when somebody calls it directly to a person who is trained and able to respond immediately, and spot them, as they call it. So, being on the phone with them while they use.

Who are the groups that Massachusetts is partnering with to work on the helpline with?

It was originally funded through an innovation grant through the RIZE Foundation, and their CEO is Julie Burns, and it was an innovation grant through there. Mr. Murray, Stephen Murray, who is the person that is operating slash, overseeing, running, directing, whatever you want to call it- He works for [Boston Medical Center] and the [Grayken Center for Addiction]. So, I believe that the [Grayken Center for Addiction] and [Boston Medical Center] had already invested in it as well. We have seen the potential and the precision in which it was able to be utilized with people using drugs, and we really needed to get this out there quickly.

I think a lot of people hear about a program like this, and they’re concerned about maybe the legal implications of reporting to something funded by the state that they’re doing something that is federally illegal. Talk to me about that- What’s the messaging to folks around that who might be afraid that using the helpline could expose them to a legal or criminal threat?

Well, we have our Good Samaritan [Law], right? So we would hope that we would lean on that, the Good Samaritan Law. And yes, we know that using drugs is federally illegal- So are marijuana dispensaries, and so is marijuana, and yet we have one on every corner and they’re advertised on every street corner, right? So, I do know is that we have 2,300 people that died in Massachusetts, and we have to think outside the box, we have to do something different, and we can’t wait for the Titanic to turn on a dime, the federal government to move quickly. We’re, I’m tired of losing brothers, sisters, friends, friends’ kids, neighbors to overdose. We have a poisoned drug supply. This is not people that you consider just down on [Boston tent city Mass and Cass] or down there in the encampments that are using drugs. These are kids who think they’re using something else. These are people going to a rave thinking that they’re going to do a molly or a line of coke or something like that, that don’t believe that they have an opiate problem, so they don’t need to carry fentanyl, they don’t need to do this. We have a poisoned drug supply. And so, to have this opportunity for people to use more safely, that to me is a win.

Let’s talk about that increase in the overdose deaths, that horrifying peak that we hit in 2022- What do you ascribe that to?

Oh, the poisoned drug supply. It really is the poison drug supply. It’s also outdated laws and regulations. I think Massachusetts is so forward thinking in trying to bypass any statewide regulations that may be impeding treatment or impeding access, but we still have some federal regulations. We also have an immense amount of stigma and immense amount of discrimination against people who use drugs and people with substance use disorders. That, and people still call them addicts and junkies, and “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps.” I talked to somebody at Carney Hospital the other day, who said, oh, I gave this person a list of places to call, but they didn’t. And I’m like, did you do that to the cardiac patients? Did you give the cardiac patient who’s having a heart attack a list of cardiologists and say, go to town? No, you didn’t. And until we actually change our attitude, we’re going to continue to see these numbers up. So, it’s poisoned drug supply, it’s stigma, it’s lack of access, it’s incredibly high obstacles that people who use drugs have to climb to get adequate treatment. And that’s just adequate- Like, just adequate. So, people who are not getting IV [peripherally inserted central catheter] lines for infections because they have a former IV drug use habit, right? These are things that are just morally reprehensible, and that’s why we continue to have it. We’ve done a phenomenal job getting Narcan out there and naloxone out there, of utilizing every lever that we have to increase access. But until people feel that they’re deserving of it, and that people allow it to happen, we’re going to continue to see problems with these numbers.

What is the next step for Massachusetts as more tools like a newly bolstered helpline get pushed forward to front of people as solutions? What do you see as the next the next step in this process?

I think that there’s- It’s never just going to be one bullet. And people asking me all the time, like, how are you going to fix this problem at [Boston tent city Mass and Cass]? And I’m like, I don’t know. I don’t know how I’m going to fix that. It’s going to be a bunch of different opportunities. But what I do know is that to stem this, we have got to think upstream. We have got to think about housing, we have to think about access to treatment, we have to think about education, we have to think about stop taking children away from their parents who transiently use. All of those things are things that we have to think about. Things that we need to also do is, we need to with the federal government about methadone reform. Methadone needs to be available and accessible at pharmacies like any other medications, and not have people go to a clinic where they stand in a line outside every day. Right? I can’t do that- I have a job. I also have a car and money and food, and I still would have problems trying to get to a methadone clinic every day. We need to do that. We have to be intentional around our Black and Brown citizens in Massachusetts and make programs that speak to them, not just create a one size fits all.

 An interview with Bureau of Substance Addiction Services Director Deirdre Calvert.  Read More