MAYOR'S COLUMN: Bristol's response to the opioid epidemic

Published on Sunday, 1 December 2019 12:52
Written by Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu

Earlier this month, the City of Bristol Recovery Alliance, known as “COBRA,” was implemented. This is the latest in the series of efforts undertaken by the city and its partners to stem the flow of opioid and other substance use issues.

Bristol police officers now have the ability to use their discretion when interacting with a person in possession of an illegal substance, or who is using a substance illegally. Instead of being arrested, the person can choose recovery, and be brought to the Bristol Hospital Emergency Department.

In addition, any member of the community who is struggling with substance or alcohol use can also walk into the Emergency Department or the Police Department and request help. At this point, the person will be evaluated for treatment options. They may include a Medication Assisted Treatment, detoxification, or more. The person will also be paired with a crisis clinician and a recovery coach. The recovery coach can help arrange referrals to an appropriate treatment facility, and can even drive the person to the destination.

Not being a big fan of snakes in general, the COBRA name made me cringe when it was introduced. However, when you think about it, there are many analogies that can be made. For example, there are 10 different type of cobras, just like there are many different type of substance use disorders. The King Cobra is the most dangerous snake in the world, due to its ability to inject venom, just as dozens of people inject heroin into their veins, or swallow a handful of OxyContin.

Since April, there has been 110 overdoses in Bristol, 3 of which were fatal, with Narcan being administered to 90 of the people. More than half of them were for heroin, and 18 of them were for fentanyl. The real time reporting that the Health District now has access to via the CT Poison Control Center also tells that, for the same period, 149 Bristol residents visited hospital Emergency Departments in Connecticut for an opioid-related overdose. Of those, 123 were male, and 26 were female.

Today, the opioid crisis is a full-fledged epidemic. It is costing billions of dollars a year, creating a cycle of treatment expenses, recovery efforts, lost productivity, and an impact on law enforcement and courts. The Mayor’s Task Force on Opioids has been working for 18 months to create a community plan. Here is a summary of the progress:

nInformation brochure on resources for the community, as well as a specific version for Police Department medical bags.

nIncreased access to Narcan training within the city and distribution of Narcan to those who want it close.

nIn conjunction with the Bristol-Burlington Health District and Wheeler Clinic, received a grant for a community outreach recovery coach who identifies and works with people who are ready for treatment.

nVisibility at community events to start the conversation about the dangers in an attempt to reach families who are scared to talk about it, as well as reduce the stigma associated with this issue.

nThe task force works closely with the Best-4-Bristol teen peer group via the Drug Free Community grant to spread the word to young people.

nWheeler Clinic, Community Health Center and the Bristol Hospital Behavioral Health Center, all located along North Main Street, are equipped with counseling and medication assisted treatment programs.

nThe City Council voted to become a “Recovery Friendly” community last spring. The city’s hiring practices also reflect a willingness to hire non-violent drug offenders when appropriate.

nBristol Hospital Emergency Department, under the direction of Medical Director Dr. Andrew Lim, received a grant to fund recovery coaches in the ED from Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery.

nThe city and MazzMedia produced a series of videos featuring Bristol families who are sharing their stories. They can be found at

Last week, I stopped in at the informal needle exchange program that occurs once a week in a city parking lot. As a Wheeler Clinic employee chatted with the people who came to receive supplies, a man told me about his wife and 10 year old who were killed in a car accident several years ago. We talked about COBRA and he said he was almost ready. An important lesson is that every person has a story.

We can attempt to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable. We can turn a blind eye to those who need help breaking the cycle of substance and alcohol use because it’s their fault, or we can accept that this public health epidemic is bigger than that, affecting families in every part of Bristol. All that has been spent to date is the time and effort of dozens of volunteers, city employees and hospital staff to create a public policy response.

Ellen Zoppo-Sassu is the mayor of Bristol.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Column, Editorials on Sunday, 1 December 2019 12:52. Updated: Sunday, 1 December 2019 12:54.