Operation Helping Hand in Burlington County has expanded its operations making certified recovery specialists available 'round the clock to those who are struggling with substance abuse.

Prosecutor Scott Coffina said Operation Helping Hand was a grant program started by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal when he was a prosecutor in Bergen County. He opened it up to all 21 counties. The programs started as a drug enforcement operation that focused on the buyers — arresting drug buyers and lining up recovery coaches and counselors and treatment beds for those police arrested to offer them the chance to change their lives.

But Coffina said this model did not fit all counties. Burlington did not have an open-air drug market where buyers could be arrested. He said people from neighboring counties would bring drugs into Burlington and because of that, Coffina said he has seen a dramatic spike in fatal overdoses in recent years.

Last year, Burlington County partnered with local police and worked with City of Angels to bring recovery coaches directly to people in need following an overdose, an arrest for a minor offense or just somebody who needs help and is ready and willing to accept it.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the county has expanded Operation Helping Hand. It started in February and this this is the fourth round. The grant cycle ends in August. In light of what is closed down and the pressures on people facing addiction or are in recovery, Coffina wanted to have a wide-open timetable where help would be available. That help is now available 24/7 from now until Aug. 31.

Coffina said he has seen an uptick in overdoses. In the two months the state has been in lockdown due to the pandemic, there has been a 30% increase in overdoses in Burlington County compared to the same March 1 to May 5 period last year. Fatal overdoses have been flat but there have been more cases in hotels.

There has been a lot of uncertainty about what help is available these days especially with a lot of programs that have moved online.

"But generally with all the confusion, we wanted to have somebody who was in that crisis point, had an overdose, has been arrested, has had law enforcement contact, to have police be able to say, we can get you help and we can get you help now," Coffina said.

Recovery experts at Operation Helping Hand are able to connect with people and set an example that recovery is possible and really provide a lifeline to someone when they're ready to take that first step to treatment, they can get them there.

In February, the recovery coaches responded to a crisis in person. But March through May has been telephonic. Coffina hopes to resume in-person assistance by June if the virus allows.

After the grant cycle ends on Aug. 31, Coffina hopes to renew the program for another year.

An extensive list of resources throughout the state can be found at www.njcares.gov. Also, someone in need can call Operation Helping Hand at 877-266-8222.

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