Parents and Camden County officials hope free fentanyl test strips will reduce overdose deaths

This May 10, 2018 photo shows an arrangement of fentanyl test strips in New York. Sales of fentanyl test strips have exploded as a growing number of overdose-prevention programs hand them out to people who use illicit drugs. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

This May 10, 2018 photo shows an arrangement of fentanyl test strips in New York. Sales of fentanyl test strips have exploded as a growing number of overdose-prevention programs hand them out to people who use illicit drugs. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

The morning 28-year-old Christian Alessi died of an overdose in his Camden County home — after almost three years in recovery — it’s likely he didn’t know he’d used fentanyl. Christian’s mother, Judy, said her son had told friends he was afraid of the powerful synthetic opioid. She’s convinced he’d still be alive if he’d tested his drugs.

28 year-old Christian Alessi died of an overdose last March. His mother believes fentanyl testing strips would have saved his life. (Courtesy of Judy Alessi)

Now a pilot program in Christian’s home county is looking at fentanyl test strips as a way to reduce overdose fatalities.

“Those who are suffering from an addiction disorder don’t necessarily want to die,” said Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. “Often, it is the case they want to prevent further harm to themselves. By making the strips available, we believe some of the overdoses will be avoided.”

As early as April, homeless outreach workers, recovery specialists responding to overdose calls, and the Camden County Department of Health and Human Services will have small testing kits to distribute.

The pilot is expected to run from three to six months within Camden city limits. Outreach workers who are already in touch with people experiencing opioid abuse disorder will help recruit participants.

Those in the pilot will have to undergo some training and return to answer some short questions about the experience after two to four weeks.

The $4,500 worth of strips will be assembled into about 1,000 kits, each with up to five testing strips, instructions, and a card connecting users with resources.

The strip itself works almost like a pregnancy test. The user’s drug is mixed in water and then the thin strip of paper is dipped in.

“So if it comes up positive that it has fentanyl, [the hope is] that they would reduce the amount  that they’re using, and know that they have what they have, and be more careful,” explained John Pellicane, with the Office of Mental Health & Addiction in Camden County’s Department of Health & Human Services.

The other component of the harm reduction plan is to connect users to outreach workers who are ready with recovery services. Outreach workers argue it’s important to keep users alive until they’re ready for treatment.

“Nobody knows what’s in the drugs that they’re taking,” Pellicane said of fentanyl’s ubiquity. “They don’t know what they’re taking necessarily and it’s anywhere from 50 to 200 times more powerful [than morphine].”

As in other cities, the synthetic drug has been found in local heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine supplies. It’s what’s kept Camden County as a leader in the number of overdoses and fatalities in New Jersey, according to Pellicane.

In 2012, fentanyl was cited in one county toxicology report. Five years later, it was reported in 170 cases, coming second to heroin.

County officials and health advocates have embraced needle exchanges and naloxone, the overdose reversal drug, as harm reduction methods.

But the latter is more expensive, as are more modern drug testing machines used in Boston.

The pilot, which was a suggestion from the county’s Opiate and Heroin Addiction Awareness Task Force, has faced no public opposition.

For Judy Alessi, Charlie’s mom, the pilot is a way to help people like her son. Those battling addiction but trying to work through it.

“[Charlie] was a scaredy-cat, he got pneumonia one time and thought he was going to die,” she said, thinking of how her son might have avoided fentanyl had he only known about it.

As the one year anniversary of Christian’s death approaches, Judy is comforted by memories of her son, who she describes as responsible and an animal-lover. She hopes the county’s pilot might spare other moms her pain.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal