San Francisco has seen drug overdoses skyrocket over the past year — a statistic only made worse by the pandemic. To address the crisis, Mayor Breed announced plans to create a new Street Overdose Response Team (SORT) to mitigate the number of future drug-related deaths.
2020 saw two pandemics emerge: one spurred by a novel pathogen, the other created by the widespread manufacturing (and use) of the synthetic opioid fentanyl. In San Francisco specifically, nearly 700 people lost their lives to fentanyl overdoses last year, marking an all-time high since the opioid crisis began about twenty years ago. But Mayor Breed’s announcement Friday of the proposed City-funded crisis team SORT would offer help in contending with San Francisco’s spike in drug overdoses.
To build on the success of our Street Crisis Response Teams, I'm proposing we expand this model to create Street Wellness Response Teams.— London Breed (@LondonBreed) May 23, 2021
They'd respond to the 18,000 yearly 911 calls for wellness checks, freeing up police to focus on criminal activity. https://t.co/Ot6WS3eAV8
“In 2020, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of overdose fatalities on our streets reached a historic high of 699 accidental overdose deaths,” reads part of a statement released by the Office of the Mayor in regards to the proposed SORT initiative. “Synthetic opioids, such as illicitly manufactured fentanyl, are a primary driver in overdose deaths both nationally and locally. According to new data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 87,000 Americans died of drug overdoses between September 2019 and September 2020, the highest ever recorded since the opioid epidemic began in the 1990s. People who survive an opioid overdose are two to three times more likely to die from fentanyl overdose than people who use drugs who have never overdosed.”
Per Bay City News, SORT would become the third program announced within the last six months to address health-related crises on city streets; the proposed Street Wellness Response Team (SWRT) — an initiative started to respond to well-being checks and situations that require medical or social assistance, but don’t require police presence— was announced earlier this month and could be implemented as early as January 2022, depending on funding. The City’s Street Crisis Response Team (SCRT) launched in 2020 to deal with non-violent mental-health emergencies in parts of the city and now includes six divisions.
🧵18 months ago I started warning #SanFrancisco this was coming. At the time, much of the leadership in the city didn't think illicit Fentanyl was a problem and homeless activists said only 24% of the unhoused struggle with addiction. https://t.co/ubqjAkz7rs— T Wolf 🌁 (@Twolfrecovery) May 23, 2021
SORT’s mission would be similar to those of both SCRT and SWRT: provide critical first-aid during times of crisis, sans police involvement, that doesn’t require 911 and 311 calls for non-violent behaviors. Per the news organization, SORT calls would necessitate an immediate response from the San Francisco Fire Department that are followed by actions from clinical team members from the city's department of public health — which would include input from medical and behavioral health specialties, which are crucial for descaling situations.
The City’s addition of SORT would help expand both the ability to address people during exact moments of crisis, particularly as they relate to drug-related problems, while also freeing up police resources.
"The overdose crisis on our streets requires a wide range of approaches, including meeting people where they are in the moment when we can get them the help they need," Breed continued in the release. "By getting to people immediately and then being consistent with our follow-up, we hopefully can get them on the path to stabilization and to recovery. This, of course, needs to be paired with broader efforts to prevent overdoses from happening in the first place, and that is why we are continuing to increase the number of treatment beds and outreach efforts for people in crisis."
San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) Director Dr. Grant Colfax believes it’s vital to reach people during the early stages of an overdose — as it’s “a critical window of time when we can offer people life-saving medicine.” SORT would also act as an “initial point of engagement” for clients to access available clinical services, while also helping them navigate those resources effectively.
It’s estimated that SORT would cost the city $11.4M over two years to operate the two response units, three follow-up units — the branch of the program that engages with clients within 72 hours of the initial contact from response units to provide ongoing care — and a supervisory team that oversee the entire operation.
Image: San Francisco Mayor London Breed speaks during a news conference outside of Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital with essential workers to mark the one year anniversary of the COVID-19 lockdown on March 17, 2021 in San Francisco, California. San Francisco has some of the lowest number of coronavirus cases and death rates in the country with only 422 deaths in a city with a population near 900,000. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)