St. Louis County working to reduce post-jail opioid overdoses

Nurse Brian Toia holds tabs of buprenorphine
Nurse Brian Toia holds tabs of buprenorphine, a drug which controls heroin and opioid cravings, in July 2018 as he prepares to administer the drug, known also by the brand name Suboxone, to selected inmates at the Franklin County Jail in Greenfield, Mass.
Elise Amendola | AP 2018

St. Louis County is creating a program to provide medication for opioid treatment in the county jail as part of a U.S. Department of Justice initiative that seeks to reduce the number of people overdosing on opioids.

As part of the planning initiative, St. Louis County staff will be guided in how to set up a program where inmates and those leaving jail can be prescribed medications like buprenorphine and methadone that are used to treat opioid dependence.

Inmates leaving jail are at higher risk for overdosing because their tolerance may be down. Sheriff Ross Litman said the county wants to reduce the number of inmates who overdose and die after leaving jail. But they also want to connect people to help so they can get their lives back in order.

“Arguably we’ve been doing a good job for the folks that are in our custody to help them through their withdrawal and addiction, but really the big problem is when they’re released,” Litman said.

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In January, the county surveyed inmates on their opioid use. Litman said more than half reported using opioids or heroin, and about a third of inmates said they used the drugs on a daily basis.

Judge Shaun Floerke, who presides over the South St. Louis County DWI Court and has supported the program, said in a statement that this is one more way that the community can respond to the opioid overdose epidemic.

"We know that people going to jail who've been using heroin or opioids will have a horrible detox. They will be very sick, often in need of medical care," Floerke said. "People need intervention and treatment.”

Health care consultants will visit the jail to train and work with county staff starting Thursday. Five employees from the county will also be sent to Washington D.C. to be trained on administering medication and educating jail staff about addiction.

The actual launch of the program to provide medications for opioid treatment will be decided during the planning process.

The initiative is supported by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Associate and Texas-based philanthropic organization Arnold Ventures, which has vowed to spend $26 million to expand access to opioid treatment and prevent overdose deaths. St. Louis County is one of 15 chosen from around the country to participate in the initiative.