Opioid overdose prevention kits include the Narcan nasal version (top left in kit box) that provides a 90-minute window and Naloxone injectable —two vials of Naloxone and two 22-gauge needles designed to go through pants, shirt, even Carhartt material — that provide an 8-hour window. MCAVHN supplies both to the county’s rural areas allowing time for an overdose individual to get to the hospital. (photo by Karen Rifkin)
Tickets are still available for MCAVHN’s 35th Event of the Heart, “Many Colors Singing in Harmony” — an elegant night with a champagne reception, hors d’oeuvres and a sit-down dinner by Ellery Clark Catering, live and silent auctions, wine, beer and non-alcoholic beverages and music and dancing with DJ Mikey Tobin — to be held on Saturday, June 3 at the Ukiah Valley Conference Center,200 S. School St., from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.
MCAVHN Care and Prevention Network, established in 1987 as a volunteer AIDS support services provider to assist individuals struggling with HIV and AIDS and required end-of-life supports and services, held its first Event of the Heart in February of 1988. The agency has grown over the decades and now also offers countywide syringe exchange services and harm reduction supplies, medically assisted treatment for Hepatitis C, medically assisted treatment with Buprenorphine for opium use disorder and follow-up care by Adventist Health medical providers, overdose prevention education and SSI/SSDI assistance serving those at-risk who are unhoused, mentally ill, substance abusing or have chronic illness and health conditions.
Joanna Olson, executive director since July of 2022, says working with the agency is the best work she has ever done, not just life changing for those who receive their services but for their staff — in recovery — 95 percent of whom have lived the experience of addiction whether it be alcohol, street drugs or prison, and can now help others.
Judy Popowski, volunteer CFO for 13 years, breaks into tears when asked why she works there. “I can’t even express it; I believe in what we do. It started off when they needed someone to do the payroll for a couple of weeks and that expanded.”
She takes a few moments, “MCAVHN is a place where everyone is accepted. You can be a person who uses drugs or homeless or hear voices or someone who is picking up Narcan for a friend. The staff brings you in, listens and tries to help. In a world of political posturing, this straight-up love is a rare diamond found in an old Victorian on Clara Ave.”
Board member Don Popowski says when he retired, he became involved because “many of us do not see the need in the community.”
And new needs have emerged; approximately 80 percent of MCAVHN’s clients deal with some form of opioid addiction such as heroin, Fentanyl, Oxycodone, Oxycontin and Suboxone. It’s an epidemic initially fueled by over-prescription of opioid medications— highly addictive with tolerance achieved in days and severe withdrawal symptoms.
The worst drug crisis in the history of the U.S., opioid overdose kills more than 1,500 people per week and afflicts people from all socioeconomic and educational backgrounds, from illicit use to those who are prescribed opioids following surgery.
“I spent 12 years youth coaching cheerleaders,” says Olson, “and I know three local young women who got involved with opioids in high school. They come here and it’s tragic to see what’s happened to them; they’re homeless and psychotic from drug use. It’s heartbreaking. People who are addicted do not choose to be addicted.
“I’m big on widespread prevention education to youth in schools as well as young adults, parents and first responders. Our staff was invited to Anderson Valley to do an opioid use disorder/substance use disorder and Narcan education program to all their middle and high schoolers.
“Because our staff has lived the experience, the kids listen to them. They present the real facts; a lot of kids can get addicted after the first time they use; it’s that potent and kids need to know that.
“Afterward, we received a message from the superintendent saying that it was life changing for their students and they want us to return next year.
“We’ve been to Willits High, to Sanhedrin High, to the charter schools. We would like to present this program in the Ukiah schools.
“We provide Narcan (a medicine that rapidly reverses an opium overdose) to every fire department in the county, because they cannot get it, to churches and to others who need it.
“Prevention is key. Much of the money we receive from this year’s EOH will be targeted in that direction.”
Olson wrote a grant for MCAVHN in the fall of 2022 when Mendocino County was ranked No. 4 per capita in the state for opioid overdose; now the county is No. 1.
Illicitly manufactured Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin, defines the current crisis in the U.S. It is the most common drug involved in drug overdose deaths and the leading cause of death for those under the age of 50.
Joseph Ditto, Harm Reduction and Outreach Program Manager/Community Prevention Education Provider, says Fentanyl has been in the county for the last 10 or 15 years but has become extremely relevant over the last five years.
Chemicals from China are shipped to Mexico where the drug is mixed with other illicit drugs to increase the potency of the drug and pressed into pills made to look like legitimate prescription opioids. Fentanyl-laced drugs are especially dangerous because many times people do not know their drugs are cut with it; thus, the risks are increased, with deadly side effects.
“There’s no way to know for sure, even with test strips that we provide (that can detect the presence of fentanyl in all different kinds of drugs); you have to be very precise in the testing.
“The properties that fentanyl is being cut with are terrible, mixed with Tylenol or baby powder to make more product and then transferred into the meth and cocaine raising the risk factor 10-fold. Our hardest hit areas for overdose are Hopland, Elk and Albion. We’ve been placing staff in those areas. It’s definitely a crisis,” says Ditto.
Both Olson and Ditto say the alleged reason for Mendocino County being so hard hit are the drug cartels, primarily in Covelo, that have seen the price of marijuana decrease and have found a more lucrative way to increase their profits.
“They’re flooding the area with these drugs.”
Then there’s Xylazine, a powerful tranquilizer approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in large animals, also being mixed with Fentanyl.
“When Emergency Medical Services go on a call, they will administer Naloxone and Narcan but with Xylazine, there’s nothing that can reverse that,” he says.
Judy Popowski says they would like to open a facility in Fort Bragg; it would be more efficient because they spend hours on the road.
“We’re crippled for funding right now; so, this year’s Event of the Heart is very important for us to continue to provide our services; with this opioid crisis we need to double our services countywide,” says Olson.
“The target population we serve is diverse — from the homeless to those who function in this community including moms, grandmas, teenagers.
“Street people, our most marginalized population, are invisible; people will not look at them, won’t talk to them. But when they come here, they’re looked at with kindness and empathy and they feel safe, one of the only places they feel safe.
“They come for needle exchange; develop trusting relationships with our team; reduce use; and meet with Dr. Barash who hears their stories and helps them get well medically. We drive them places, to recovery; help them get jobs, housing; whatever they need. Our team helps stabilize their lives.”
Event of the Heart tickets are $140 per person. Donations for the silent and live auctions are welcome. For more information, contact Judy at 650-483-2997.