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Denver Public Health & Environment Rolls Out Mobile Unit to Help Those in Need

Innovative “Wellness Winnie” hits the streets to save lives

Denver - The Denver Department of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE) is doing its part to tackle our nation’s crippling opioid epidemic and overwhelming misuse of substances with a unique approach of bringing life-saving services into Denver’s neighborhoods.

Wellness Winnie, a mid-size Winnebago or recreational vehicle (RV), will make weekly scheduled trips across the city with an emphasis on underserved areas—Montbello, west and southeast Denver—to provide behavioral and support services for people living with substance misuse and other mental health conditions. Comparable services will also be offered outside the vehicle in a large enclosed, heated tent. And Wellness Winnie will work alongside other service organizations, as often as possible, to bring programming together in one place to make it easier for those who need help. 

“By taking support directly into neighborhoods where people are, we improve access to treatment, overdose prevention and reduction in disease progression. We let those experiencing substance misuse know they are not alone—and we’re here to help,” Mayor Michael B. Hancock said. “It is innovative approaches like the Wellness Winnie that literally put Denver on the road to meaningful solutions to help end the opioid crisis.”

At the helm of this mobile unit are mental health counselors and peer support workers. Peer support staff are well-equipped to assist others experiencing substance misuse or in recovery because of their own personal, lived experience.

Wellness Winnie will immediately provide free services to the communities it visits, including:

  • A place to talk with peers and/or mental health professionals, and to receive services or referrals to primary care, long-term behavioral health treatment, specialty care, dental and human services.
  • Overdose prevention education and naloxone nasal spray, along with rescue breathing masks.
  • Collecting used syringes and providing individual and larger sharps containers.
  • Distributing wound care supplies including towelettes, gloves, antibiotic cream, ibuprofen, gauze, and adhesive bandages.
  • Providing survival basics like socks, sunscreen, toiletries, lip balm, deodorant, hand warmers, hats, gloves, and feminine hygiene supplies.
  • Offering safer sex materials including condoms.
  • Other services from partners where Wellness Winnie parks, including access to food, laundry, showers, and help getting an ID.

In the future, DDPHE plans to expand Wellness Winnie services to include:

  • Immunizations for conditions like influenza and hepatitis.
  • HIV and hepatitis C testing, counseling, and links to specialty care.
  • Assessment of skin infections and wound care by qualified medical providers.
  • Basic primary care, screening for common health conditions, education, and self-care demonstrations.

Mobile services are shown to effectively reach people who may not otherwise access fixed-site services.

“We look forward to serving everyone who needs our help. The staff of the Wellness Winnie is prepared to meet a variety of people, each with their own diverse background of social circumstances. Staff members will follow a model of friendly, nonjudgmental care to create an environment of trust on the Winnie,” said DDPHE Executive Director and Public Health Administrator, Robert McDonald. “We will strive to build relationships with those we serve, providing them with options and resources for a healthier future.”

Wellness Winnie is a program based on harm reduction principles, which represent a range of public health policies and strategies to lessen harm associated with human behaviors. The goal is to help people change their behavior in small incremental steps. As a person experiences success because of the changes they’ve made, they can continue on a path to less harmful practices. Harm reduction can also serve as a bridge to additional health services, including treatment. Other local health departments that have adopted harm reduction philosophies are: Boulder County, Jefferson County and Tri-County.

The Wellness Winnie addresses goals outlined in the Road to Wellness: A Strategic Framework to Improve Behavioral Health in Denver by providing access to compassionate, integrated, coordinated care; promoting well-being and self-care; and supporting the goal of getting people the care they need, when they need it.

The mobile unit also connects to goals created by Caring for Denver (C4D). Voters passed this ballot initiative Nov. 6, 2018 to dedicate over $35 million a year toward mental health and substance misuse needs in Denver. Winnie supports these community priorities by providing community-centered solutions to increase access to local care; supporting a care provision so more people have access to care and care providers; and offering alternatives to jail to increase diversion opportunities.

Goals outlined in Denver’s Opioid Response Strategic Plan: 2018-2023  are addressed via the work of the Wellness Winnie by improving treatment, access and retention, along with reducing harm.

The program is paid for through Denver’s Health and Wellness Special Revenue Fund. In the future, DDPHE will seek public and private grants and donations to help pay for the costs of services.

For a look at Winnie’s monthly schedule, click here.

About Wellness Winnie’s Distinctive Look
Every five years, the state of Colorado conducts a health and environmental assessment, resulting in a public health improvement plan. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) undertook an effort to visualize the results of this work through murals.

Research shows that art impacts culture, and culture impacts the health of communities. The CDPHE Mural Project aims to raise awareness of Colorado’s priorities and what is being done to address them to ultimately impact health across the state. Through the Redline Contemporary Art Center "Arts in Society" grant of $25,000, the CDPHE Mural Project partnered with 8 communities across the state to create these impactful murals.

Denver chose to wrap the Wellness Winnie in a mural created by local artist Robyn Frances. Frances created the mural on the Wellness Winnie using ideas and feedback from the community in Denver who will benefit from the services provided by the Winnie.