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Tempe City Council funds project addressing opioid overdose response, counseling

With the help of a University researcher, the Tempe Opioid First Recovery Project plays a crucial role in reversing overdoses and providing follow-up counseling


"We're able to have wraparound services at the hospital to get them to a point where they're seeing if they have an addiction problem and making some real differences in their lives."

Tempe City Council adopted a resolution to continue funding for the second phase of the First Responder Opioid Project last month, furthering the reach of EMPACT La Frontera, a program in part worked on by an ASU researcher.

In 2019, the Tempe Police Department was granted funding for the project from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The following year, after receiving funding, the project began supplying Tempe police officers with Narcan and created a 24-hour crisis hotline.

Narcan is a naloxone delivery device that rapidly reduces opioid overdoses by attaching to opioid receptors and reversing the effects of the drug.

With the La Frontera EMPACT Suicide Prevention Center, the comprehensive service extends to helping people's lives after an overdose.

"We're able to have wraparound services at the hospital to get them to a point where they're seeing if they have an addiction problem and making some real differences in their lives," Tempe City Councilmember Joel Navarro said during a meeting on Jan. 18.

Naloxone only deals with the immediate problem, and does nothing to help the individual with larger issues that come with opioid addiction, according to a research paper by Michael White. White, an associate director of ASU’s Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety, was the principal investigator of the research that secured the grant.

After administering the Narcan, an officer calls the 24-hour hotline to inform the EMPACT navigator about the overdose. The navigator will show up at the scene as soon as they can and will offer services to the victim, according to Seth Watts, a graduate student working as a researcher and data scientist focused on outreach for the project.

According to the research, from 2017 to 2018 the Tempe Fire Department (TFD) "responded to 471 suspected incidents of opioid abuse and administered naloxone in 42% (or 202) of those incidents."

Tempe Police often arrived on scene for overdoses before Tempe Fire Department, but Tempe PD did not carry naloxone, Watts said.

ASU is responsible for is data management, an important part of the process in continuing to help Tempe residents fight opioid addiction.

The program also employs EMPACT peer navigators. A significant role of the peer navigator is continued contact with the person using opioids. If they decline project services at the moment, a peer navigator will reach out to check back in.

Establishing a personable relationship builds trust, and the program's services can help the person with getting an ID, housing, education and counseling.

"Over (the course of the project), we kept an engagement rate that was higher than 50%," Watts said.

The project started right before the COVID-19 pandemic and immediately faced adversity.

One of the issues the project was not prepared for was limited access to patients in hospitals. There was a great relationship between Tempe PD and EMPACT, and a solution was found on the fly, according to Watts. Tempe PD would meet the EMPACT navigators at the hospital to allow them into the room so they could see the patient.

"During the last two years, we noticed an increasing number of overdoses among homeless people, who are more difficult to find and engage," White wrote in an email. "The new project includes the proactive engagement."

In the first year of the project, 13% of the individuals who received naloxone were people experiencing homelessness, and in the fourth year, 45% of the individuals were unhoused, according to Watts.

"The second phase will function much like the first, but it will also include proactive outreach by an EMPACT navigator and Tempe police officer. They will seek out people who have overdosed in the past in an attempt to engage them with services," White said in an email.

Edited by Grey Gartin, Sadie Buggle and Grace Copperthite.

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