Arlington Police Chief Frederick Ryan, a leader in the movement to involve police in fighting addiction, deployed the town's public alert system Monday evening to invite opioid users and their families to attend a meeting on Vivitrol, a drug used to treat addiction.
Monday's robo-calling marked the first time the Police Department has used the "Arlington Alerts" emergency system to send a message about one of its twice-monthly meetings on opioid abuse.
"I would argue it is an emergency," Ryan said. "We've already had three overdoses in January." All three were saved by the overdose-reversing drug Narcan, he said.
Ryan said recorded phone calls started going out at 5 p.m. to the 19,777 households enrolled in the service, inviting them to a community meeting from 7 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Whittemore-Robbins House, 670R Massachusetts Ave. The alerts can be used for incidents such as snow emergencies, evacuations, large-scale water interruptions, or major meetings, and more, according to the town's website.
The meeting is focused on Vivitrol, a monthly injection that blocks the pleasurable feelings from opioids and alcohol. The Police Department has partnered with Square Medical Group , a Watertown treatment provider, to offer Vivitrol to Arlington residents. Katherine S. Gorham, a psychiatric nurse practitioner from the practice, will speak at the meeting.
"Many have found this to be the key to their recovery," Ryan said. "We're trying to get the word out there that there is this medication-assisted treatment option available."
He said Vivitrol, which costs $1,000 for a monthly dose, is less well-known than other medications to treat addiction, methadone and buprenorphine (best known by the trade name Suboxone).
For up to 28 days after getting a Vivitrol shot, an addict can't get high and will be less likely to experience cravings. This can create an opening for addicts to rebuild their lives — but treatment professionals caution that counseling and other help with the social and emotional aspects of substance abuse are essential to success. Prison officials throughout Massachusetts have started offering it to addicts before release. Vivitrol doesn't produce a high and can't be diverted to street use.
But the drug — approved for opioid addiction in 2010 — has not been studied as thoroughly as methadone and buprenorphine. It's not known the optimal number of months a patient should take Vivitrol, whether cravings return after the injections stop, and how its long-term effectiveness compares with other treatments.
Tuesday's meeting is among a series of twice-monthly community gatherings called Arlington Community Training and Support, or Arlington ACTS, which are part of the police's initiative to combat opioid addiction, started in July.
Unlike the well-known Gloucester police program, in which addicts seeking help come to the police department, the Arlington program reaches out to people whom the police know to be addicts. That includes customers of people arrested for drug dealing. A social worker embedded with the department contacts them directly and offers help getting treatment.
In addition to talking about Vivitrol, officials at the meeting also will provide free doses of Narcan, the opioid-reversing drug.
Arlington recorded six overdose deaths during the first six months of 2015, but only one during the second half of the year, Ryan said. He credited the department's efforts to distribute Narcan and train people in its use. Emergency workers saved 29 overdose victims in 2015, and in several other cases found evidence that someone else had administered the drug, he said.
"We're going to do everything we can to have zero fatal [overdoses] in 2016," Ryan said.