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Hotline, angel program hold promise for helping those trapped in opioid addiction

It speaks to a desperate need when the telephone hotline for drug addicts is no sooner set up than 50 calls come in during the first several hours.

This is the opioid crisis in real time. Except now there’s someone on the other end of the line, 24 hours a day, looking to help. The Erie County Crisis Services’ just-launched Addiction Line is a huge start toward something much bigger and more relevant in the purpose of saving lives. And it’s only one piece.

The rest of the pieces need to fall in place, but the only way that happens is when more people step up to help. The payoff will be a healthier community and the satisfaction of knowing that someone’s son, daughter, sister or brother is not alone in the battle against addiction.

Too many people, many of them young, have died as a result of opioid and heroin overdoses. There have been 224 confirmed or suspected cases in Erie County so far this year. Nearly 400 died of overdoses over the two previous years.

This is an epidemic that officials here and elsewhere are trying to address, and starting the hotline is one tool. Another involves community volunteer support through “angels,” an appropriate way to refer to the individuals who would be on call at a moment’s notice to be that shoulder someone needs to lean on.

As reported in The News, a new telephone hotline for addicts has opened (716-831-7007). The Addiction Line can link residents directly to treatment providers. The REAP program, or Rapid Evaluation and Appropriate Placement, depends on agencies, companies and public bureaucracies. More importantly, it depends on volunteers – or angels – who only have to submit to a background check and agree to participate in a one-day training program. Then just a willingness to respond and be there, whether at a police station or treatment intake center, where they will keep “suffering individuals” occupied for up to a few hours. Passing the time with “cards or coffee” until treatment arrangements are finalized.

The Erie County Health Department is hoping to get more volunteers. The Buffalo Police Department has a central part in organizing, screening and deploying volunteers. The REAP program includes partnerships with 13 different police departments throughout Erie and Niagara counties. Six are set to come on line this week: the cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls; the Erie County Sheriff’s Office, Amherst, the Town of Tonawanda and East Aurora.

The solutions are still new. REAP grew out of the Erie County Opiate Addiction Task Force, which was established in February. As has been reported, many police departments do not have the program and hours are limited at those that do offer it. The county needs more angels and Crisis Services needs to hire more hotline staff.

These are hurdles that can be overcome. It won’t be easy, and there may be many lessons learned as the result of hiccups. As Health Commissioner Gale R. Burstein said: “When you go from nothing to something, there’s going to be a bottleneck, initially. There’s going to be a surge of people trying to get into services.”

For that reason alone, failure is not an option.

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