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Harm reduction advocates say new fentanyl test strip program may need refining

A fentanyl test strip is used to detect fentanyl in a drug sample. \
Jesse Costa
A fentanyl test strip is used to detect fentanyl in a drug sample. Such test strips cost about $1 apiece.

Delaware’s Division of Public Health begins distributing fentanyl test strips to drug users this fall, but outreach workers, harm reduction advocates and fentanyl users say the effort may need fine-tuning.

Test strips were classified as drug paraphernalia in Delaware until 2021, when the legislature voted to make them legally available to the public. Since then, DPH obtained funding through the Centers for Disease Control to purchase and distribute the strips, both in Narcan kits given to drug users by outreach workers and in sets of ten through a free mail-order program.

aTacK Addiction public policy coordinator Dave Humes, says the strips could save lives, but for many everyday users, mixing a portion of a dose with water to test for fentanyl may not be front of mind.

“People who have longer experience and may just need to take the edge off if they’re getting near the point of withdrawal," he said. "[For them], the main thing going through their head may be getting the edge off, and they’re not focused on testing it.”

And several regular users note they are fully aware they are consuming fentanyl — a sentiment echoed by outreach workers who distribute Narcan kits. Holly Rybinski, the Prevention Program Manager for Brandywine Behavioral Health, says the strips are more needed by young people experimenting with drug use who do not expect or intend to take fentanyl.

“They just started putting them into the Narcan kits, but it really needs to be explained at schools – high schools and middle schools," she said. "It needs to be out to those people because they’re the ones who will not expect it to be in whatever substance they’re experimenting with at the time. Because everyone here already knows they’re getting fentanyl.”

Humes agrees with Rybinski, noting that the state may have a chance to use dollars from a national settlement with multiple opioid distributors and manufacturers to fund a more targeted strategy to increase access to test strips.

The Division of Public Health says it is searching for partnerships that could help it get test strips to the demographics who need them most.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.