The fact Surry went a whole month without a drug-overdose death shows progress is being made in prescription-medication awareness, although a county emergency official says the battle is far from won.
“It’s still a major problem, but I hope we’ve seen a difference in the amount of deaths from overdoses,” Emergency Services Director John Shelton said Thursday in reference to a trend that has been called epidemic locally.
Shelton was reacting to a report that Surry County experienced no fatalities during March as a result of misuse or abuse of prescription medications, which a special task force has been trying to alleviate for more than a year.
“It’s been several months since we’ve been able to say that,” Shelton said of the March outcome.
However, he cautioned that the public shouldn’t read too much into that statistic.
“We’re still running overdoses, and some of them are bad,” Shelton said of EMS paramedics.
During 2011, more than 30 Surry Countians died from the effects of prescription drugs, a figure authorities consider understated since it doesn’t include persons treated at out-of-county medical facilities. In some cases, people might have overdosed here, been transported to such facilities and died there — with that result not being made available due to federal privacy regulations.
Just considering 30 known cases for statistical purposes, an average of 2.5 persons died each month during 2011.
“For the last couple of years, it’s been pretty steady in the number of deaths,” Shelton acknowledged.
Though the March overdose statistic represents a welcome change, he said prescription medication abuse and misuse is still commanding much attention not only among the medical-response community but law enforcement agencies. Many of the crimes being committed are linked to the drug problem in some manner, Shelton said.
“There’s still a lot going on with that,” the emergency services official added.
Yet last month’s outcome suggests that the worst could be over.
“The number of serious overdoses has dropped to a degree,” Shelton said. “I think we’re starting to have an impact on it, as long as we don’t start climbing again.”
A group called the Surry County Prescription Drug Task Force has been working since last year to attack the problem on a variety of fronts using a “Project Lazarus” model that was successful in Wilkes County.
This has included awareness campaigns targeting students in local schools, initiatives by pharmacies, involvement of the medical community to curtail the practice of “doctor shopping” for prescription pain-killers and even ministers incorporating the subject into sermons.
One of the most-visible elements has been a take-back program of unwanted or expired medications spearheaded by the Mount Airy Police Department. As of this week, more than 63,000 pills had been left at a special container in the police station lobby and a successful medicine drop effort was held in March in the Walmart parking lot.
“A great job has been done by all the people who have been fighting this problem,” Shelton said.
“But there is still a long way to go.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.