UNION COUNTY, NJ – Union County remains committed to fighting the opioid epidemic with programs like Operation Helping Hand.

A county initiative that offers treatment to individuals arrested for opioid possession, Operation Helping Hand has offered help to 250 people over the last two years, said Acting Prosecutor Lyndsay Ruotolo at the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders meeting on Thursday.

During the meeting, the board voted unanimously to increase funding to Prevention Links, from $25,000 to $35,000, for implementation of the Operation Helping Hand program. Prevention Links is an organization that provides recovery coaches for Operation Helping Hand and other county programs.

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The freeholder board also voted unanimously to apply for and accept $100,000 in state funding to help facilitate the program. Freeholder Vice Chair Alexander Mirabella was not present during the meeting for either vote.

Ruotolo, sworn in as Acting Prosecutor last month, explained the benefits of the program.

“Union County has not been spared by the opioid epidemic,” Ruotolo said. In 2018, 133 people in Union County died as a result of a drug overdose, 122 of which were attributed to opioids, she noted. “The numbers for 2019 are hitting those marks already.”

“[Operation Helping Hand is] a one-week law enforcement initiative where we switch gears, and instead of going after dealers, we make arrests of people on possessory-level opioid offenses,” Ruotolo said. “With Operation Helping Hand, we bring these individuals who we arrest to a makeshift headquarters, where we have recovery specialists who are there on scene while arrests are being processed. And they meet with the individuals […] and right there and then, they’re offered the opportunity to get into services.”

During the first weeklong operation in June 2018, a total of 102 people initially participated, 83 accepted treatment, 64 remained in treatment after the first month, and 23 successfully received help, Ruotolo said. At the time, she was an Assistant Prosecutor for the county, and was actively involved in the operation’s planning.

This year’s operation in May saw a total of 148 participants, 38 of which remained in treatment after the first month, Ruotolo said.

At a public information seminar in May, several county officials discussed programs in the county to combat drug addiction and abuse, including Operation Helping Hand.

More information about Operation Helping Hand can be found here.