Across New Jersey, as predicted, drug overdose deaths did increase amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, although not as much as officials had feared at the outset of the new health crisis.

The trend was even reversed in Burlington County, where 15 fewer people died from overdoses last year versus 2019, even if Prosecutor Scott Coffina said the 2020 death toll of 149 was still "way too high."

While the county is not yet celebrating its success, it is crediting two influential programs with bringing about Burlington's first year-over-year decrease in fatal overdoses in more than a decade.

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One program, called Operation Helping Hand, has just received $36,000 in grant money from the state Attorney General's office, to keep it running through at least the end of July.

Operation Helping Hand encourages local police to call a recovery coach, 24/7, upon encountering anyone in their towns who has been reversed from an overdose, arrested on a minor drug offense, or even just has a known history of drug trouble.

Not only have officers been actively doing that, Coffina said, but the approach has worked: Out of 175 such calls placed in the past year, more than 80% of individuals in these police encounters have accepted coaching, with many of them subsequently entering treatment.

The prosecutor takes those numbers as a sign that the stigma surrounding drug addiction and abuse, at least in Burlington County, is at long last being reduced.

"One of the things that we think about here is as long as somebody's alive, there's a chance that they could be saved, that the next day, the light will come on, and that that'll be the day that they seek treatment and get help, and that that treatment will stick," Coffina said.

Speaking of treatment, the other program is called Straight...to Treatment, and in three years of operation at police stations in Burlington City, Evesham, Mount Holly, and Pemberton Township, it has helped more than 300 residents get on the road to recovery.

Coffina said he felt it was important to keep these stations open, even during the height of the pandemic.

"Anybody could walk into those four police stations on a day that we're servicing, and they can come in and just say, 'I need help,' and help will be provided to them," he said. "And if it's a referral to treatment that's appropriate, they'll get referred right away."

Burlington County was quick to respond to the overdose spike of 2016-17, which has been blamed on the rise in fentanyl both by itself and mixed with other drugs, by cracking down on the drug dealers.

In the last four years, according to Coffina, 26 suspected dealers have been charged under new guidelines.

"If they're going to play Russian roulette, and gamble with the lives of their customers, we've been using the first-degree drug-induced death statute to increase the penalties and the consequences," he said.

And law enforcement's angle has changed throughout the county, too. Officers aren't just looking at overdoses as medical issues anymore, but responding to them from the start as criminal acts.

"They're immediately trying to gather evidence to identify who dealt the drugs to the person who just fatally overdosed, and track them down so we can bring them to justice," Coffina said.

It's too early to tell what 2021 will bring, but Coffina hopes 2020's overdose decline will be the beginning of a more long-lasting downward pattern, to spare family members the loss of loved ones when help is so readily available to them.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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