Caldwell Emergency Services has been awarded $500,000 in state funding to establish a new program to connect people who are addicted to opiates with resources to aid in their treatment and recovery.

The program, which will be titled Caldwell RESTART, will be funded by a two-year grant from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, Lt. Jason Powell said.

The grant will allow the county to hire two new employees, one to handle the administrative side of the program, and another to work directly with clients, Powell said.

The program will be designed to aid people addicted to opiates who have been involved with the criminal justice system by connecting them to treatment, counseling, and other resources, Powell said.

Powell and others are still in the early planning stages for the program, but they hope to collaborate with judges, law enforcement and other community partners to identify people who need help.

As part of the program, EMS workers would be able to hand out Narcan, a medication that reverses opiate overdoses, when they go to aid someone experiencing a drug overdose.

Powell said that they are also considering how to help clients access Suboxone, a medication that can help wean people off of opiates.

In a presentation to the Caldwell County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday evening, Emergency Services Director Dino DiBernardi said that overdoses have doubled in the last year.

From March 16, 2019, to March 15, 2020, EMS workers gave 94 patients Narcan. From March 16, 2020, until March 29, 2021, 181 patients received Narcan.

The number of doses administered also jumped from 141 to 280, which speaks to an increasing potency of the opiates circulating in the community, DiBernardi said.

Commissioner Jeff Branch asked whether giving the public Narcan to reverse the effects of an overdose was essentially saying that it’s OK to do drugs.

“I agree, but the problem there is if we don’t, they will die,” DiBernardi said. “There’s opinions on both of the aisle. … Whether you believe that opioid abuse is a illness or not can be obviously argued, and there’s people in the medical field on both sides of that.”

DiBernardi said that part of the issue is that sometimes after people who sell drugs are arrested, those they sell to seek drugs from other sources, and they don’t always know what they’re getting — whatever they buy may be mixed with fentanyl, a deadly opiate, and it may be more potent than what they normally use. This can cause people to overdose and die, he said.

“We go into these houses, and yes, family knows. And I wouldn’t say they support the drug use, but it’s still their kid. We have a duty to act, so when we go in, we give Narcan,” and after that, people may refuse further medical treatment, he said.

DiBnardi said he wants to reduce the numbers of those who fatally overdose.

“I have to find a way to reduce that number, and right now I can’t legally give Narcan from my ambulance for those people to have at that house. … Personally, I have my feelings on the administration of Narcan by the public. Professionally, I am 100% in support of it. Because ultimately at the end of the day, somebody’s life is going to be saved.”

Reporter Kara Fohner can be reached at 828-610-8721.

Reporter Kara Fohner can be reached at 828-610-8721.