Waterbury and UConn Partner to Fight Opioids

Beth Russell is the associate director of UConn’s Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy. Photo by Gino De Angelis.

By Gino De Angelis

The Waterbury department of public health and UConn’s Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP) have spent the past year partnered to analyze data and strengthen programs that fight the opioid epidemic in the city.

“One of the big things [InCHIP] does is facilitate collaborations,” Deborah Cornman, the associate director and researcher at InCHIP, said. “It could be collaborations between faculty at UConn, or facilitating collaborations between faculty and community organizations.”

The city of Waterbury sent out a call for evaluators for the department of public health’s Warm Hand-off Program, and the call was answered by Human Development and Family Sciences Professor Beth Russell, who was at the university’s Waterbury campus at the time.

“I responded ‘Hey I’m a Waterbury faculty member I study addiction and would love to help!'” Russel Said. “I’m the director of the Center for Applied Research and we do a lot of program evaluations.”

Both Cornman and Russell said they have worked with InCHIP for years. Cornman has a PhD. in clinical psychology, and says she wants to work with communities to make sure they can stay healthy. She previously worked at the AIDs Project in Hartford and has been with UConn for 21 years predominantly working with HIV.

“I got my PhD. and swore I would never be in academia,” Cornman said. “The person who started InCHIP, Jeff Fisher tried to sway me to come back…Eventually I came back because I saw the resources and the infrastructure support.”

Russell said that the grant that Waterbury applied to was successfully given, with both herself and Cornman contributing to the process.

InCHIP was started to provide assistance with program evaluation and budgeting. Cornman said that grants are provided due to pilot data, which is important to prove that the programs they are going assist with.

“We have provided a lot of technical assistance to the Warm Hand-off Program, that was not expected,” Russell said. “Both Debbie and I have been doing community partnership work for long enough to know that because grant writing and grant implementation are not always their primary expertise, when there are researchers, like us at UConn, at the table we end up giving a lot of advice.”

Russell said that the advice they gave to Waterbury didn’t just include data collection, but also practical advice on sustainability.

“I think Waterbury didn’t necessarily know that we could do that for them at the beginning,” Russell said. “Over time we’ve grown to have a very broad set of conversations with the Warm Hand-off Program about not just what did their data look like and who we should best talk to to understand what they’re up to, but also a place where they can ask for advice about what software they should be using or how frequently they should be making their client notes.”

She said that giving a wide range of advice to organizations help make the community partnerships with InCHIP strong, and she said that she and Cornman want the relationships to be collaborative and that the scholars shouldn’t take the forefront.

“We were brought in as evaluators,” Cornman said. “We weren’t brought in to write the grant. We were brought in to be incorporated in the grant to do the evaluation, both qualitative and quantitative.”

InCHIP is located in the Ryan Building on UConn’s Storrs campus. Photo by Gino De Angelis.

The Warm-hand off Program that started from the grant is meant to provide those going through addiction with the resources to seek treatment. When a person in Waterbury goes through an overdose, part of the response involves and opioid response technician arriving at the scene and help evaluate and connect them with detoxification and residential treatment.

According to Russell, one of the earliest conversations that InCHIP and Watebury had was who the ORTs would be.

“Should they be social workers? Should they be clinicians? Who should these people be who are going to help hook survivors to services,” Russell said.

Cornman and Russell said that the department of health started by trying to get clinicians as ORTs, but that route was cost ineffective. Instead, they looked to past programs both within the city and outside of it, and instead decided to use the resources already available within the department.

“Everyone i’ve talked to, and I’ve done multiple focus groups and multiple interviews, they think that using a peer recovery coach, someone whose lived it, walked it, that is the way to go,” Cornman said. “That’s the beauty of creating something new. It is working together to figure out what is feasible and what is not when you’re developing a program, and that’s how this program evolved.”

The program involved the collection of both qualitative data by Cornman and quantitative by Russell. However, that data belongs solely to Watebury, and isn’t controlled by the university.

Russell said that the data collected from the ORTs included how many times they were dispatched and whenever they followed up on past overdoses.

“What I’m looking at is what was the volume of work that they did. How many police report followups? How many direct points of contact?” Russell said. “What were the trajectories like for those different groups of survivors? Did they survive even?”

The qualitative data collected by Cornman meanwhile was from eight individual interviews and two focus groups. Cornman said that she had a standard set of questions but still had flexibility to change them based upon prior answers.

“I interviewed municipal leaders, I did a focus group with police, with firefighters, I talked to the ORTs, and got pretty consistent feedback that was very positive,” Cornman said. “They think that using recovery coaches, people that have lived it and walked it was the way to go.

In fact, Cornman said that she never heard anything negative about the program, and that all of her interviews and focus groups were consistently positive about its developments, and would like to see it grow and eventually have 24-hour coverage and more ORTs. Waterbury has put in for more grants.

“You do what you do with the budget we had,” Cornman said.

The funding for the partnership ends at the end of August, but the ORTs will remain on staff.

“Our portion of the project has ended,” Russell said. “We are about to wrap up our involvement with the project.”

Russell said that one of the biggest successes from the partnership is that the department of public health can now collect better data more consistently.

“The capacities of the partnership between the police department and the department of public health in Waterbury have demonstrated that they can be more efficient and rigorous in documenting their work,” Russell said.

She said that it was a growth curve that both sides had to go through, and that the biggest lesson was that the city and department needed to invest in their own staff to raise its capacity to do work and to do it well.

“I’m excited to see where they go next,” Russell said.