City officials, police and Bristol Health fight the opioid epidemic with the new COBRA program

By The Bristol Press

November 15, 2019

BRISTOL - City officials have partnered with Bristol Health to address the opioid crisis, and substance abuse in general, in an unconventional way.

The City of Bristol’s Recovery Alliance (COBRA) program gives police the discretion to get someone who illegally uses substances or abuses alcohol treatment instead of arresting them. A federal grant helps pay for the treatment services.

“We want people to get treatment,” Police Chief Brian Gould said. “We’ve realized the traditional measures are not working.”

COBRA officially launched on Nov. 1, and Bristol Hospital on Monday will share a PSA to its Facebook page so those in the community are aware of it. Both city and Bristol Health officials believe the program is very important because of the opioid crisis harming Bristol and other communities. According to Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu, not a day goes by in Bristol that first responders aren’t called to multiple overdoses.

“The ultimate goal is to save lives and get people better,” said Dr. Andrew Lim, medical director of the Bristol Hospital emergency room.

Under the program, those in need of treatment are given the option of arrest or getting help, at the discretion of an officer. Gould said this only applies to people who are in possession of drugs or using illicit substances or alcohol. Individuals believed to be selling drugs in the city are not eligible.

Those who choose treatment are taken to the Bristol Hospital emergency room and treated right away. Lim said this can include doses of suboxone if the individual is struggling with opioids. Within an hour, the individual is set up with a recovery coach who will refer them to either Community Mental Health Affiliates or Wheeler Clinic for outpatient services.

According to Lim, the recovery coach will go as far as to drive someone to outpatient appointments and check in on them on a regular basis to make sure their recovery is going well.

Lisa Coates, operations manager at the Bristol Health Counseling Center, said the COBRA program helps to reduce the stigma to addiction. It does so by using terms more friendly to those in treatment, such as avoiding things like addict, abuser and junkie and substituting them with things like person in active addiction, person with a substance misuse disorder and person experiencing an alcohol or drug problem.

“We want them to feel better rather than be stigmatized,” Coates said.

The program, Coates continued, also makes recovery more attainable by keeping individuals struggling with substances out of the criminal justice system.

“It’s really hard to find employment when you’ve been arrested,” Coates said.

The COBRA program is modeled after similar programs in other cities and towns but expanded a bit.

“Ours is open any kind of abuse,” Zoppo-Sassu said.

Lim called COBRA an “all encompassing program” that helps get people on a better “path to recovery.”

According to Gould, the idea for COBRA came about during one of Zoppo-Sassu’s Opioid Task Force meetings.

“It brought us to the table,” Gould said, adding that hearing from people who lived through addiction helped a lot with finding a solution.

Gould also said all of his officers have been trained to recognize when an arrest is appropriate and when treatment is a better option.

“Officers on the street appreciate having another option,” the chief said.

Individuals who believe they need treatment don’t have to be facing possible criminal charges to use COBRA, Coates said. Anyone can show up at either the police department, at 131 N. Main St., the Bristol Hospital emergency room, at 41 Brewster Road, or the Bristol Health Counseling Center, at 420 N. Main St., and ask for help.

“We don’t want to have to put someone through the criminal justice system if we don’t have to,” Gould said. “We recognize this is an illness.”