New Harm Reduction Program Aims to Reduce Opioid Overdoses

Page updated on May 14, 2021 at 9:52 AM

New Harm Reduction Program Aims to Reduce Opioid Overdoses


Opioid Work Group LogoMay 14, 2021--The City of Alexandria Opioid Work Group has launched a regional evidence-based harm reduction program in partnership with The Chris Atwood Foundation to lower the rates of opioid overdoses from fentanyl, which is about 50 times as potent as heroin.

The program, the first of its kind in the region, involves the distribution of fentanyl test strips, which can identify the presence of the synthetic opioid in unregulated injectable drugs, powders and pills. The program is being funded by a State Opioid Response (SOR) grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

According to the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner 4th Quarter 2020 Fatal Drug Overdose Quarterly Report, fentanyl caused or contributed to 72.1% of the preliminary total of 2297 fatal overdoses in Virginia in 2020. The synthetic opioid is often pressed into pills and combined into other substances without the user’s knowledge.

“Being aware fentanyl is present allows people to implement appropriate harm reduction strategies to reduce the risk of an overdose,” says Opioid Response Coordinator Emily Bentley. “Use of the strips has been shown to change a person’s behavior when fentanyl is detected in a substance, and that can save a life.”

The strips will be distributed in the Northern Virginia region by a team of peer support specialists provided by The Chris Atwood Foundation. The team will track data related to the distribution as well.

The peer support specialists team will also provide a wide range of services to help support engagement or re-engagement of individuals in recovery, including help in navigating resources like shelter, recovery housing, medical insurance, medication-assisted treatment (such as methadone or suboxone) and other resources. They will also conduct outreach to individuals who have recently overdosed and provide training to DCHS staff and clients in the use of Narcan, a nasal spray that can reverse an opioid overdose.

"Peer support programs bring together persons with lived experience and those looking for support around their substance use,” says Bentley. “This partnership is unique in that it allows for a personal, mutually supportive long-term relationship for clients with those that have the lived experience needed to understand their needs.”

For more information about the Opioid Work Group, opioids or treatment and recovery resources, visit Residents and organizations interested in acquiring fentanyl test strips or Narcan can email or call 703.746.3326.

For more information, contact Emily Bentley at or 703.746.3326.

This article is a slightly edited version of a DCHS news release issued on May 13.