Drug overdose deaths have been down three months in a row – but despite that remain up 7% for the year after having surged in the early in the pandemic.

With COVID-19 numbers rising as winter approaches and some temporary unemployment programs due to lapse soon, groups are trying to be ready to help if there’s another wave of overdoses.

Debbie Natale, co-director of Warren County Parent-to-Parent Addiction Services said that during the pandemic, so many people who have been in long-term recovery have relapsed.

“And it’s actually in that 30-year-old age is what we’re getting a lot of right now,” Natale said.

As part of a new partnership with law enforcement to transport people to treatment beds, Natale’s agency this week will pick up a mobile recovery van. Next step: Raise funds to get it fitted out.

“Because Warren County is so spread out, we could go have it sit in front of the police departments that day,” Natale said.

The opioid epidemic and state and local strategies for addressing it was the swan song at last week’s New Jersey State League of Municipalities convention for its outgoing president James Perry, a Hardwick committeeman whose son died of a fentanyl overdose five years ago at age 23.

Perry said the wider availability of naloxone helps reduce overdose deaths but doesn’t get a person help. He said anyone revived with it by EMS or police should have to do a mandatory 90-day treatment program.

“Anybody that has to be Narcanned has a serious problem and they need to get the attention,” Perry said.

Perry also supports tougher penalties for drug dealers, likening it to attempted manslaughter, and for New Jersey to adopt a law similar to Florida and other states that allows a family to have a member committed to a drug treatment facility for evaluation for 72 hours.

“At 16 or older, they can just refuse it and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Perry said.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a particular challenge for people needing drug addiction treatment services. Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said law enforcement can help with creative solutions done in conjunction with local organizations, such as recovery specialists and treatment referrals.

“Solutions like having people with training in mental health and substance use treatment respond to drug-related scenes, in addition to police officers,” Grewal said.

Between March and May, the pandemic’s first spike, overdose deaths jumped 19% from a year earlier. Approaches such as expanded availability of telehealth helped lead to an 8% decline in fatal overdoses from June to September.

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