Fifteen months ago, residents dealing with opioid addiction were unable to seek medication-assisted treatment in Grand Forks County -- their closest options were either 50 minutes away in Thief River Falls or an hour away in Fargo, according to Opiate Response Project Coordinator Michael Dulitz.

Dulitz took his position with Grand Forks Public Health in November 2017, after the community received a $180,000 statewide targeted grant for opioid response from the North Dakota Department of Human Services. Since then, local health facilities have obtained the ability to medically treat addicted residents.

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“The biggest thing that comes next is getting the word out about the treatment we have available in the community,” Dulitz said. “We spent a lot of time in this first year working with these different entities and getting treatment going.”

Dulitz’s department partnered with Valley Community Health Centers, based in Grand Forks, to offer medication-assisted treatment. Since May 1, Dulitz said the group has treated at least 15 patients.

In February, Ideal Options, a private treatment center, began offering medication-assisted treatment in Grand Forks. The company is not funded by the grants Grand Forks received in 2017 and 2018.

Valley Health Behavioral Health Director Robin Landwehr said medication-assisted treatment consists of both medication like Vivitrol, which is administered during treatment and recovery, and behavioral health therapy.

“Each person who comes in meets with one of the counselors we have here,” Landwehr said. “Just to see if there’s some other mental health issue contributing to the addiction that we can treat here as well.”

Grand Forks received another $160,000 statewide grant for opioid abuse in June 2018. So far, $10,000 from this grant has gone toward the F5 Project to provide help to individuals in the criminal justice system, $29,000 for peer support group Face It Together, $29,000 for Agassiz Associates to treat inmates at the Grand Forks County Correctional Center and $79,000 to increase access to medication-assisted treatment at Valley Community Health Centers.

Grand Forks applied for the grants shortly after Mayor Mike Brown issued a call to action against opioid abuse last May. A steering committee formed from that call, including Grand Forks City Council members Sandi Marshall and Jeannie Mock, also serves as the advisory board for Dulitz’s department and it created a Community Action Plan council members reviewed Monday night.

The plan focuses on four areas: prevention, intervention, recovery and communication.

Regarding the last item, Dulitz said his department has hired an intern from UND’s Master Public Health program.

Even as Grand Forks continues to increase local treatment options, Dulitz said it remains difficult for affected residents to immediately obtain medical assistance. Through the statewide targeted response grant Grand Forks received, the community has been able to distribute 275 naloxone kits since August 2017, it has trained 529 community members to help someone experiencing an opioid overdose, and it has distributed 1,980 treatment guides so people know how to safely use opioids while awaiting treatment.

“And that has things, like, you should use safe equipment every single time, if a person does inject substances,” Dulitz said of the guides. “Making sure they have access to naloxone in case there is an opioid overdose, not using alone.”

Keeping residents who abuse opioids healthy in the meantime is just as important as treatment, Dulitz said, because it’s difficult to quit using without help and not everyone has immediate access to medication treatment.

Withdrawal is pretty miserable,” Dulitz said. “Some people compare it to being worse than the flu because you have basically both the symptoms of the stomach flu and of influenza at the same time. You know, you feel that miserable.”