Summit County preps for detox center reopening, plans for crisis center

Sawyer D'Argonne

This article was first published in the Summit Daily on August 24, 2020 by Sawyer D'Argonne.

In the coming weeks, the county will be reopening its withdrawal management unit in Frisco, once again providing a safe space for community members to detox from alcohol and drug use, and seek treatment for substance use disorders.

In spring 2019, officials planned for the opening of the Safe Haven Walk-in Crisis Center inside the medical office building adjacent to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, a facility that included both an acute treatment unit for individuals in mental health crisis along with a clinically managed detox center for those dealing with addiction and substance use issues.

But the facility has largely gone unused ever since. Mind Springs Health, which was set to serve as the provider for both services, lost its state contract to provide behavioral crisis services in the area in June of last year, resulting in financial concerns that kept the acute treatment unit from officially opening its doors.

Mind Springs operated the detox center until earlier this year, but officials said staffing struggles prohibited the center from performing as planned, often closing on short notice with nobody available to assist community members in need.

“Because of a combination of funding and staffing difficulties, we felt it was best to try and find a different provider,” Assistant County Manager Sarah Vaine said.

The COVID-19 pandemic, paired with the unglamorous nature of detox services, created challenges in finding a new operator willing to take the role.

“We sent out a (request for proposals) to the world of behavioral health right at the edge of COVID,” said Jennifer McAtamney, executive director of Building Hope Summit County, a local nonprofit dedicated to improving the mental health system in the area. “We had people interested in operating other aspects of the substance abuse and mental health continuum, but detox wasn’t one that stood out. Frankly, the reason is because it’s not a profitable business. That’s why we needed such strong community support to make it work.”

Officials eventually were able to strike a deal with Recovery Resources, a nonprofit based out of Aspen that specializes in detoxification and substance abuse monitoring.

McAtamney said the Summit County government helped to support the service’s annual $1.2 million price tag through Strong Future funds. Local towns, Centura Health, Eagle Valley Behavioral Health and grants also provided money.

Once the detoxification center is reopened, Recovery Resources will staff the facility 24/7, providing a safe way for individuals in Summit and Eagle counties to receive necessary treatment related to substance use. The center is scheduled to open at 11 a.m. Sept. 6. Staffing will be composed entirely of area residents.

McAtamney said it’s a vital service, especially in areas like Summit County, where perceptions around substances like alcohol are troubling. Community members are already aware of heightened DUI rates in the area, but a recent survey conducted by Building Hope in Summit, Eagle and North Tahoe, California, revealed area residents may be drinking considerably more than the average American.

According to survey results provided by McAtamney, the three counties reported higher rates of current alcohol use (82% vs. 53% nationally), heavy drinking (23% vs. 6%), binge drinking (40% vs. 16%) and excessive drinking (45% vs. 18%). In Summit County specifically, 83% of respondents said alcohol is important to social life.

The COVID-19 pandemic also has exacerbated alcohol use nationwide. In-store alcohol sales were up 54% in late March compared with the same period in 2019 while online sales were up nearly 500% in late April, according to the American Heart Association.

“(The survey) really confirmed what we already knew, which is that there’s a lot of drinking that goes on in our community,” McAtamney said. “And not all of it is healthy. It’s a sensitive subject for people, but we feel like we have to be honest about what’s going on and let people know about the dangers they may experience. A lot of people are experiencing isolation and uncertainty, and turn to alcohol or other drugs. We’re here to help them when they want to make different choices.”

While the detoxification center will be open to anyone seeking help, local law enforcement also has expressed that its return will allow them to better serve intoxicated individuals with whom they come into contact.

Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said that while the detox center has been closed, deputies have largely relied on finding sober family members and friends to take care of intoxicated people they contact. But FitzSimons said simply ensuring a safe environment for someone to sober up is only a small part of what a detox center could provide.

“There is a missing piece in our community where people can go to not only get a detox, but to get other resources around mental health and substance abuse,” FitzSimons said. “Even when we turn someone over to a sober party, they’re not getting that extra piece they’ll get at detox.”

Developing the acute treatment unit

As officials in the region eagerly anticipate the opening of the detox center, they’re also diving into conversations about how best to revamp the acute treatment unit.

At a Summit Board of County Commissioners work session Tuesday, Aug. 25, officials got a look at new recommendations for the site from Nancy VanDeMark, a consultant hired to analyze the needs and possibilities of the facility.

VanDeMark outlined a concept for the treatment space to serve as a multiservice “recovery hub” for mental health services, including a drop-in crisis center, peer support for adults and youths, intensive case management, and navigation to services around social development, employment and housing.

VanDeMark emphasized that programs should be focused on supporting long-term success through healthier lifestyles in lieu of just providing short-term guidance through on-site counseling. 

“A lot of the magic that happens in recovery for mental health or substance use disorders really happens in the connection between people,” VanDeMark said. “… It’s not what happens in a session with a psychiatrist or social worker; it’s the connections with people who have had similar problems and getting back to a life where we have access to recovery-oriented recreation, and we’re doing positive activities. … It’s really about life rather than clinical care.”

VanDeMark also recommended formalizing community partnerships, expanding options for recovery and transitional housing, identifying better transportation to services and exploring medication-assisted treatments for opioid and alcohol use disorders.

Plans for the facility are still in the formative stage, and it remains to be seen exactly what services will look like when it eventually opens. But officials are optimistic that a provider can be in place within the next six months.

“That is the optimistic outcome,” Vaine said. “But I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t think it would be possible.”