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Harm Reduction Services on West Front Street in downtown Traverse City.

TRAVERSE CITY — Harm Reduction Michigan received a $300,000 grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to expand dissemination of an overdose reversal drug.

“I’m excited, I’m jazzed,” said the organization’s volunteer spokeswoman Pam Lynch. “There is still so much difficulty in getting this life-saving medication to the people who need it. Having harm reduction hubs in more places means we can get information and access out there in a much bigger way.”

Naloxone is a medication injected or inhaled that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose. When administered by bystanders, whether trained or untrained, it significantly improves survival rates from overdose, according to studies published in the scientific journals Drugs, and Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation.

The term “harm reduction” refers to a set of public health principles aimed at reducing the consequences and stigma associated with drug use, in part by not requiring users to be sober to receive treatment.

Harm Reduction Michigan is a nonprofit organization whose staff works with active and recovering drug users in Traverse City at 501 W. Front St. and in Petoskey at 1053 US-31 Suite 3.

The grant, administered by Bloomberg’s re-granting organization, Vital Strategies of New York City, will pay for new locations in Cadillac, Gaylord and Midland, and for a mobile unit to operate in Frederick and other locations as needed, Lynch said.

“What’s really valuable about what Pam has been able to do here is, she’s set up services by truly relying on a social networking model,” said Daliah Heller, Vital Strategies’ director of drug use initiatives, in a telephone interview.

“Drug use is hidden because it is criminalized,” Heller added. “Pam’s model is really a mechanism toward reaching those folks no one else has. Making naloxone available can and will have a real impact on overdose deaths.”

The grant is part of $10 million Bloomberg Philanthropies, a charity founded by Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City and a 2020 presidential candidate, pledged in Michigan to fight the opioid epidemic.

The state set a record for overdose deaths in 2017, at 2,690, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That number fell slightly in 2018, to 2,591, a CDC report showed.

The high number of overdose deaths, and the state’s geography of vast rural areas and dense urban ones, makes it a good place for Bloomberg Philanthropies to invest in improving public health, Heller said.

On Friday, Lynch said she’d just signed three leases for Harm Reduction service locations opening soon on Mitchell Street in Cadillac, Front Street in Gaylord and Saginaw Road in Midland.

“If they would have given me the funding, I could have done 12 towns or more, because there is that much need,” she said. “I hope that with Vital Strategies here, people’s understanding of what Harm Reduction is will be greatly increased in the next two to three years.”

In March 2019 the Grand Traverse County Health Department was awarded a $50,000 Harm Reduction Syringe Service Grant from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Department staff wanted to re-grant $17,500, to both Harm Reduction Michigan and Addiction Treatment Services to pay for staff time and counseling and use remaining funds for administration, as previously reported by the Record-Eagle.

At an April 2019 meeting, county commissioners voted the idea down.

As previously reported by the Record-Eagle, Board Chairman Rob Hentschel, a “no” vote, said that although his “heart went out” to people suffering from addiction, he didn’t want to remove the stigma because doing so would increase the propensity for people to turn to drugs, he said.

Heller said the board’s decision to forego the grant was an older, rooted, long-standing response, and that more education was needed.

When asked what a visitor to a Harm Reduction service location could expect, Lynch said, “first and foremost a warm greeting. Then a one-on-one conversation about what’s available.”

Harm Reduction Michigan staff are trained to ask a visitor the purpose of their visit, whether they need an overdose kit (naloxone), help getting into treatment, a fentynal test strip, to safely dispose of used syringes or information about area 12-step meetings.

“Change imposed externally is rarely maintained in the long term,” Lynch said.

“Unfortunately, there has been an attitude here that in order to deserve help, you have to first be abstinent. But that’s not reality. We help people where they are now. Not where someone else thinks they should be.”

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