Philly’s opioid crisis

Philly’s Health Department should release opioid information in Spanish, advocates say

Philadelphians who don’t speak English might not be getting the whole picture.

Evan Figueroa-Vargas (right) is a recovery advocate in Philadelphia

Evan Figueroa-Vargas (right) is a recovery advocate in Philadelphia

Twitter/ @horsepowerev
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Updated Feb. 21: A week after recovery advocates first requested the translation, Philly’s Health Department provided information about the comprehensive user engagement site in Spanish.

Philadelphia recovery advocates are concerned that Philly’s Health Department is only releasing some of the info about its response to the opioid crisis in English.

That has the potential, they say, to leave the city’s Spanish-speaking population — which is high in areas like Kensington and Fairhill — without necessary information.

Wednesday morning, Evan Figueroa-Vargas, a program manager at Mental Health Partnerships, teamed up with Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition Executive Director Devin Reaves to officially call out the city on that front. Specifically, they requested the release of Spanish versions of the Health Dept.’s rundown of Philly’s proposed comprehensive user engagement site.

If the city doesn’t provide Spanish language copies, Figueroa-Vargas said, it becomes much easier for misinformation to spread in the community.

“I wonder if people who don’t speak English proficiently can still access the information being put out to the public,” Reaves said. “We should produce it in a number of languages so that it’s accessible to all Philadelphians, because opioid use disorder affects all Philadelphians.”

The consequences of this lack can be impactful, Figueroa-Vargas said. People who can’t read English might think the CUES is the only way the city is addressing addiction, simply because it has received the most media coverage.

And even then, people who haven’t been able to read about CUES in their native language might not understand its fundamental goals.

“This is a big deal,” Figueroa-Vargas said. “This information is not getting out.”

In 2002, Figueroa-Vargas lost his brother to an opioid overdose. As a member of last year’s Mayor’s Task Force to Combat the Opioid Epidemic in Philadelphia — and as someone who has a personal connection to addiction — he wants to explore all possible solutions to reduce deaths and help people recover.

But when he first heard about safe-injection sites, he rejected the idea.

He had the same questions many Philadelphians have today: Is this facility enabling drug use? Is it actually effective in helping people enter treatment?

“You would think we would be the folks who are receptive to it,” said Figueroa-Vargas, who is personally in long-term recovery from addiction. “I suspect that the reason was because we didn’t have enough information.”

Since first hearing about the CUES, Figueroa-Vargas has come around to the idea. He’s read evidence that suggests its effectiveness — that it could help reduce overdose deaths and relieve neighborhood problems like public drug use and littered needles.

But some may never overcome that initial lack of information.

When Figueroa-Vargas told his parents about the city’s recent proposal for a comprehensive user engagement site, for example, they were angry. Figueroa-Vargas still struggles to provide them with enough information to truly understand the facility.

“I can do my best to translate,” he said, “but it would’ve been a lot more helpful to me to have something tangible in my hand.”

After Figueroa-Vargas and Reaves made their plea via social media this week, the city Health Dept. was quick to acknowledge they had a valid point.

Heath Dept. spokesperson James Garrow told Billy Penn the city does already translate some documents, on a case-by-case basis.

These documents are usually grouped with the English documents on the department website, he said. Per Garrow, it takes two to three business days to translate a document to Spanish, via the city’s translation vendor, Geneva Worldwide.

Reaves hopes the Health Dept. follows up on its Twitter promise to advocate for more CUES-related translation.

“In general, we’d like to see more information out in the community about what CUES are, what CUES aren’t and what interventions are being enacted to solve the opioid epidemic,” Reaves said. “I just hope the city acts swiftly to release this information in an accessible way, not only in Spanish, but in a broad form where everyone can be reached.”

Figueroa-Vargas has advocated before for various entities — both public and private — to translate important documents into Spanish, but only casually in conversation at community meetings and among peers. Before Wednesday, he said, he never officially requested the Philly Health Dept. provide translations. But he feels it’s an obvious step.

“This is a community already marginalized in Philadelphia, being further marginalized,” Reaves said. “This was an oversight.”