Narcan training and distribution in Beaufort County is among opioid abatement programs that could receive a portion of $1 million in grant funding to support their work. GWYNETH J. SAUNDERS

Beaufort County is about to disburse $1 million dollars to fight opioid abuse. The money isn’t for treatment or prevention but for other impacts that have affected the county.

“It’s trying to build the infrastructure in this county to be able to help these people to change their lives and keep them alive long enough to be able to do that,” said Steve Donaldson, director of the Beaufort County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Department. “These are not throw-away people. These are people we know.”

Donaldson said the county looked at the money about to come in, looked at the needs of his department, and realized there was more money than could be spent by county departments for opiate abatement strategies. He approached County Council asking if they would approve a resolution for him to submit to the community a “Notice of Funding” opportunity. That would give community groups and organizations the chance to generate or put into action plans they had set aside for lack of funds.

“We want to make sure this money is going to abatement strategies and helping to heal, abate and ameliorate the harm done by the (opioid) epidemic,” he said.

Ten grants will be provided to county 501(c)(3) nonprofits after their applications are reviewed and approved by the new volunteer citizen-staffed Opiate Abatement Management Team.

Donaldson, who also heads the team, anticipates a variety of different approaches to fight the growing problem of opioid abuse that includes the rapid spread of fentanyl in the community.

“One of the things that we’ve seen, especially since the beginning of COVID, is the number of overdoses seems to be increasing, the deaths seem to be increasing, fentanyl on the streets is increasing,” Donaldson said. “So it’s the old adage of ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.’ What I am really hopeful about is these approved uses for these funds are going to be very visionary.”

The money is part of the $26 billion settlement finalized by the National Prescription Opiate Litigation Plaintiffs’ Executive Committee. This will be the first allotment for Beaufort County via the South Carolina Opioid Settlement Funds. The state will receive $360 million during the next 18 years.

The panel reviewing the applications consists of nine volunteer citizens who have expertise in substance abuse prevention and treatment, medical knowledge, or a background in grant writing and process.

The 10 grants will break down to two awards for up to $100,000 per year for two years, equaling a $200,000 total award each; four awards for up to $50,000 per year for two years for $100,000 total award each; and four awards up to $25,000 per year for two years for $50,000 total award each. The grants will be available to applicants who demonstrate gaps, evidence-based strategies for addressing gaps, and those with sound goals and evaluation plans for opiate abatement.

“So maybe this is an organization that wants to help us with anti-stigma messaging. This other group could be someone getting Narcan training into the hands of the community,” Donaldson said. “It could be harm reduction strategies. Without this epidemic hitting us so hard, we would never have considered some of these programs, like the needle exchange program.”

Needle or syringe exchange programs began in 1988 as part of an HIV intervention. According to the Centers for Disease Control, statistics show that exchanging used needles for new ones does not increase drug use. 

“To the average citizen, that sounds really enabling, whereas these needle exchange program folks generate a relationship with people, checking things like HIV or hepatitis,” said Donaldson. “It might be with that relationship being built there might become an opportunity for that person to reach out saying ‘I’m tired of doing this, I need help.’ Exchanging needles is only 10% of what they do; 90% is dealing with other hierarchy needs. Quite frankly, they are saving lives.”

Applicant priority will be given to those who address opiate issues in Beaufort County that relate to prevention and recovery, to equip those impacted with necessary resources to provide innovative interventions to reduce opiate issues, address unmet needs, and reduce opioid-related deaths.

While the county chose to focus on nonprofit applications for this first disbursal, future application opportunities will be available to county departments, cities or townships, education organizations, and public housing authorities. Who is eligible and what they can do with the funds is outlined on the South Carolina Opioid Recovery Fund website at scorf.sc.gov.

“There are funds here available for law enforcement, emergency medical personnel. There’s a ton of money where this can be spent, such as where you go to work, because everyone is being impacted by the epidemic,” Donaldson said.

One of the requirements of receiving the grants will be to include performance measures in their reports. 

“I’m thinking if I am going to write a report and send it to a government agency, I felt I couldn’t do that without putting performance measures in place, so everyone who is receiving funding from this board has been asked to include that information,” he said. “We need to see the metrics, and in the reports they send to us, they have to tell us if their project did anything, and if they did something good.”

Then that becomes a model that can be replicated elsewhere, Donaldson said.

“We’re not going to get it right every time. We don’t know if it’s going to work every time, but we’re going go try it, and we’re going to measure it,” he said. 

The subsequent comprehensive report will inform the county and the state about what did and did not work.

“We hope that what we do with this money in Beaufort County is going in impact lives in a positive way. We are hopeful that the people who are applying have good plans that are worth funding,” Donaldson said. “I know some of the people applying have good frameworks, and I can’t wait to see how they are going to use the money to help us.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.