Peer Navigators Provide Personal Support in Puerto Rico’s Fight Against Opioids

Peer navigators from the CDC Foundation’s Overdose Data to Action (OD2A) program are on the front lines of the opioid crisis in Puerto Rico, engaging with communities across the island. Many have lived experience with substance use, so they're not just talking the talk; they're walking alongside individuals struggling with the issue, providing support, resources and a listening ear.

Liz Roman de Jesus describes her work this way: “A peer navigator is someone who shares their personal experience to support and empower other people's processes.” De Jesus said the most rewarding part of her job is connecting with other people to let them know they’re not alone. “We also advocate for the rights of the population served in order to educate and raise awareness.”

A woman with red hair and a bald man with glasses and a gray beard are peer navigators in Puerto Rico

Above: Peer navigators Liz Ramon de Jesus and Robert Morales provide support and resources as part of the Overdose Data to Action (OD2A) team in Puerto Rico.

Her colleague Robert Morales agrees and said visiting community organizations gives them the chance “to provide guidance on the opioid and substance program and identify their services so we can work collaboratively.”

In the northern regions of Puerto Rico, where data shows the overdose risk is high, peer navigators are fulfilling their mission by connecting with residents to educate and raise awareness about substance use, and how to recognize and respond to an opioid overdose with life-saving tools like Naloxone. They’ve also established relationships with emergency rooms on the island, so that if a person arrives from an overdose event, the Peer Navigator can serve as a liaison to induce treatment and provide follow-up.

Peer navigator Robert Morales, in a black shirt, bald and bearded, advises a man in a gray tee and baseball cap.

Above: Robert Morales offers information and guidance.

These public health professionals aren't just offering a quick fix; they're empowering communities to take charge of their own health and safety. By training community leaders on the use of fentanyl test strips and distributing these strips, they're providing individuals with the information to make decisions about their personal actions, potentially saving lives.

Data Analyst Ayden Nunez is also part of the OD2A team in Puerto Rico. His research work helps the Foundation and the Puerto Rico Department of Health make decisions and improve processes and performance. “When you turn raw data into relevant and consequential awareness to identify trends and patterns of what is happening with the opioid crisis, you can reduce risks. And with data visualization we can present all the information in a friendly and easy way to understand,” said Nunez.

Blue gloved hand touches a fentanyl test strip wrapper with the test revealed underneat.

Above: Test strips can detect the presence of fentanyl in a sample.

As the OD2A team continues to make strides in Puerto Rico's fight against opioids, we're reminded of the power of community, compassion and collaboration. Together, we can overcome this crisis and build a healthier, safer future for all.

April Biagioni
April Biagioni is an Overdose Data to Action communications specialist at the CDC Foundation.