In the coming weeks, Denver residents will start to see a 24-foot purple and blue Winnebago around town. Sometimes it will be parked near churches, at other times outside local library branches. But although the RV might look like it's biding its time until the next Phish concert, it will actually be saving lives.
"We don’t want people to die from preventable overdoses," Jean Finn, program manager for the city's Substance Misuse Program, says, explaining the rationale behind Denver's newest tool for fighting against the opioid epidemic.
The mid-sized RV will begin its weekly rounds this Friday, stopping off from 9 a.m. to noon outside the Denver Inner City Parish in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. There, mental health and substance-use specialists aboard Winnie will offer a variety of services, including behavioral health screenings, peer support and navigation, and a needle dropoff.
On March 13, Winnie will stop off at the Hampden Denver Public Library near Cherry Creek State Park. On March 14, it will head over to Montbello. Denver officials chose those locations because they have above-average rates of reported drug overdoses and are not close to substance-use and mental health services.
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"We went and talked to folks up in Montbello. and what people told us was that it’s very difficult to get mental health services up there. There’s no easily accessible clinic or organization," says Finn.
One of the services these areas lack is a nearby needle exchange. Denver currently has three needle-exchange centers. One is located on East Colfax Avenue near Krameria Street, another in Capitol Hill near the Capitol; there's also a mobile unit run by Vivent Health.
With Wellness Winnie, the city could have a fourth.
Although Winnie currently hosts only a needle dropoff, that service could expand in the future. City behavioral health officials have already received authorization to offer a needle exchange aboard the RV, but no date has been set for adding that service.
"Syringe exchange is probably the most studied intervention to prevent the transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C and it has been shown to be effective in preventing transmission of blood-borne pathogens. It’s also been shown not to increase drug use or increase crime in neighborhoods where it occurs," says Finn.
While needle exchanges are widely accepted by harm-reduction advocates as an effective way to prevent disease among drug users, some influential Denver personalities, including KNUS radio host Peter Boyles, remain skeptical. But city officials are ready to respond to doubters.
"Part of our plan, once we launch, will be to talk with the registered neighborhood organizations and city council representatives," Finn says. "We’ve already talked with the police departments that cover the neighborhoods that we'll be visiting."
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Staffers on Wellness Winnie will also provide information on how to help a loved one struggling with substance use disorder. "People will say, 'Hey, my niece or my daughter or my son or my sister has this problem and I’m really worried about them, but I don’t know what to do.' I think that’s the problem that we’re trying to address," says Finn.
People concerned about loved ones will be able to get naloxone (Narcan), an emergency treatment that can reverse an opioid overdose, and learn how to administer it.
But a visit to Wellness Winnie, which will partner with shower trucks and food banks at some of the places it stops, doesn't always have to be about something serious.
"If somebody wants to come in and have a cup of cocoa and have us check their blood pressure, we’d be more than happy to do that as well," says Finn.