After facing sharp criticism from neighbors last week in the Worcester Square area on the Mass/Cass 2.0 plan, on Tuesday the City suddenly released a long-delayed online dashboard with statistics and benchmarks on things like recovery placements, needle exchanges and 3-1-1 requests.
The dashboard had been a low-hanging-fruit promise as part of the 2.0 plan last year, and it was expected to be up and running by December or January. However, delays plagued it and then COVID-19 hit and took away the City’s ability to focus on anything but keeping those on Mass/Cass healthy. However, as August rolled around, members of the Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association (WSANA) and members of the Mass/Cass 2.0 Task Force began to feel that the plan was flailing and failing.
Task Force member Mike Nelson said as much last week, saying that the conditions right now on Mass/Cass in the South End were the definition of failure. Others joined him in that summation, and then late on Tuesday, the City released the dashboard.
This week, Nelson said it was a starting point and at least showed some progress on the plan, though late in the game.
“I’m happy to have it up and running,” he said. “Now we have a base line to start measuring against. This is a much needed step in the right direction.”
WSANA Vice President Desi Murphy said he was happy with the unveiling, but said he had hoped to have such data earlier this year.
“It’s a good start for informing residents and providers how the City will measure progress,” he said. “It will be a helpful resource, especially for residents who are currently tracking progress with their eyes rather than with data. I do wish the dashboard had arrived sooner though.”
City Health Chief Marty Martinez said they have been working hard on the plan, including trying to keep people COVID-19 free and to address the issues on the corridor.
“Our City teams have been focused on making the necessary improvements for those who are struggling: those with a substance use disorder, and the residents impacted by the opioid epidemic throughout Boston’s neighborhoods,” he said. “At the same time, we have been working together to overcome COVID-19, which has also made us adjust the way we deliver services across the city. The Mass/Cass 2.0 plan continues to serve as a roadmap for City departments and external partners to balance public health, public safety and quality of life issues. We remain committed to doing everything we can to improve conditions in the area, with our primary focus always being the safety and wellbeing of all people in the City of Boston. The new boston.gov/mass-cass website is one of the action items included in our plan which allows anyone to track metrics and take a deep dive into the many services that are offered in the area. It further reassures our commitment to transparently communicating with our residents on the work we have done and what is ahead of us.”
The dashboard includes monthly and year-to-date totals for Recovery Treatment Placements – there were 274 in the month of July and 2,603 since Jan. 1. Another key metric is the number of permanently housed shelter guests, and there were 16 in July and 146 since Jan. 1. Residents, however, have been most interested in the needle exchange statistics, and the dashboard gives a running total of those numbers.
In July, there were 73,694 syringes taken in, and 59,727 given out at the AHOPE program in the South End. That is a 1.23 return rate for the month. Year to date, there has been an astounding 635,219 syringes taken in, and 409,977 given out – for a year to date return rate of 1.55.
Long-time WSANA resident and data guru Andrew Brand said this is a good first step, but he had some criticisms that were based on his own exhaustive research over the years.
“Boston has taken a good first step with the Data Dashboard,” he said. “It publishes some Quality of Life metrics we’ve been seeking, such as EMS calls, which are a good indicator of drug overuse in the area. For example, it shows that in June, opioid overuse was almost 5 times more concentrated in Mass/Cass than it was just .5 miles away. While it is a good start, the Dashboard is incomplete.”
He said he thinks for the Dashboard to be useful for residents to see progress in either direction, and for the Task Force to make informed, evidence based adjustments to its efforts, the Dashboard should include the following adjustments.
•Include timelines so that we could see progress or lack thereof over time. Because the impact is seasonal, the timelines should be year over year comparisons.
•Provide data that allows us to compare Mass/Cass to other parts of the city. For example, publish the number of EMS calls for in all of Boston
•Break out the 311 needle pickup requests, which are a more precise indication of the impact of the opioid problem on residents.
•Break out syringe return rate numbers so that we could know how many needles were brought in by IV users, and how many were discarded in the streets, in the parks, and on private property.
Members of WSANA and the 2.0 Task Force are still awaiting the publication of the six-month report on the 2.0 plan, which was due in March.