While economic progress often is measured in dollars, overdose-prevention efforts can be gauged by the number of lives saved — and in Surry County’s case, the “score” is six.
That’s the difference between the number of deaths among county residents logged so far this year (11 as of Aug. 10), compared to those at the same time in 2011, 17.
However, the number of drug-overdose calls run by the Surry County EMS this year actually has increased, according to information presented at a community forum on prescription drug problems Wednesday in Mount Airy.
Such was the tone of that meeting at the Surry County Human Services Building attended by 75 people, including representatives of various agencies and institutions. While there is evidence that Surry is reversing what was termed an epidemic problem one year ago when concerted efforts began to combat abuse and misuse of prescription medications, the battle is not over.
“There’s still a lot more work to be done,” said Donna Parks, coordinator of a Project Lazarus program in Surry, patterned after one in Wilkes County which has significantly reduced problems there.
The tone of Wednesday’s meeting was that while Surry has a ways to go before victory can be declared, it is on the right path.
“We’re all feeling that we’re making some headway,” said Fred Brason of Project Lazarus in Wilkes County, who helped launch the same initiative in Surry at the urging of concerned local officials including Mount Airy Police Chief Dale Watson.
Watson and Brason were among 11 speakers at Wednesday’s forum who detailed gains made since a similar gathering last year which fully introduced the problem to the community, and outlined what’s needed in the future.
Brason pointed out that efforts are now under way to engage the entire community in reducing abuse and misuse of dangerous prescription drugs such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodine. That includes first-graders to the elderly, he said, since problems with various pain-killers and anti-anxiety medications can affect people of all ages and walks of life.
The campaign includes the ranks of law enforcement; schools; health providers such as the local hospital and physicians; the ministry; pharmacies; public health workers; and counseling/drug-rehabilitation agencies.
“It’s not just saying ‘don’t do drugs’ — we’ve been doing that for 50 years and people are still doing drugs,” Brason said of the efforts under way.
Speakers representing each sector offered their individual assessments Wednesday of what has been accomplished so far.
In examining the nature of the problem, Brason said that no one wants to see patients deprived of necessary medications for pain or other problems, but not to the point of allowing people to abuse the system.
Problems with prescription drugs have become a nationwide issue, but are more apparent in North Carolina’s Tier 1 counties, which include Surry, where job losses and poverty mirror higher levels of opioid prescribing.
Ways of supplying alternative care, as opposed to prescribing drugs that have become associated with such terms as “happy pill” and “easy button,” are keys to solving the problem, Brason said.
More is being done nowadays by doctors and pharmacies to monitor the prescription history of patients who are suspected of being abusers, with the help of a statewide database, said Brason. He added that 44 percent of Surry doctors and others are now using it compared to 27 percent statewide.
Naloxone, a drug used to counter the effects of opiate overdoses, also is increasingly being prescribed to at-risk persons, Brason said.
Emergency Room: First Step
While a hospital emergency department can be a final stop for an overdose victim, it also is increasingly representing a new beginning, according to Gary White of Northern Hospital of Surry County, also a speaker Wednesday.
As the hospital’s full-time social worker, White often sees the effects of prescription drug abuse firsthand.
It’s true that the number of overdose calls run by the EMS are up from this time last year, and could exceed 500 by the end of the year, compared to about 400 for 2011. “Even though the calls are more, the deaths are less,” White countered, and “we’re getting more people coming into the emergency room requesting help.”
He added, “The emergency room is beginning to be a first step for these people involved in problems with drug abuse.”
This has been accompanied by psychological evaluations of such persons in the emergency room, in conjunction with Forsyth Medical Center.
NHSC also has implemented policies aimed at discouraging misuse of controlled substances, including prescribing small quantities to people until they are seen by a primary physician. Those who return for more are given only non-narcotic medications, White added.
Also, prescriptions aren’t reissued for drugs that are mysteriously “lost” or “stolen.”
White believes that what he has seen in the local emergency room, especially patients seeking help with their addictions, is a result of an effective educational component being mounted over the past year.
“One Pill Can Kill”
With the hospital tending to deal with people who already have a problem, another facet of Project Lazarus locally is aimed at keeping young people from using in the first place.
A task force of students, selected from county high and middle schools by their principals, also was part of Wednesday’s forum. The six students gave a presentation while wearing T-shirts designed by one of the task force members, Taylor Joyce of East Surry High School.
Lettering on the front of the shirts reads, “Don’t let your friend become another statistic — just one pill can kill.”
Colton Hodges, another task force member, detailed additional awareness efforts led by the team, including poster campaigns, and said one goal for this school year is to engage more students in prevention programs.
Watson, the police chief, said educational steps in Mount Airy have included sending home fliers about the prescription drug problem with report cards, and also distributing 6,000 fliers with city water bills.
He further reported that 148,305 pills have been collected through various take-back campaigns and a permanent drop box in the Mount Airy Police Department lobby.
However, Watson said undercover drug officers are still seeing signs of active trading of controlled substances targeted by the campaign, with 33 percent of the department’s caseload devoted to narcotics.
Wanda Roberson of Partnership for a Drug-Free NC, who gave an update Wednesday from the public health sector, said the message also is being received by older Surry residents.
This includes presentations to senior citizen groups and contacts at events such as health fairs.
“We’re doing just about everything except for going door to door,” Roberson said.
The Rev. Bob Josey of the Mount Airy Ministerial Association, who offered a perspective from the faith-based community, said Wednesday that he has been encouraged by the community uniting to solve a problem affecting all.
“People have been brought together like brothers and sisters,” Josey said.
He added that the networking and collaborative efforts developed among diverse groups in the county have been a positive sign in itself.
Frankie Andrews, a local representative of the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse, praised the work being done in local schools, especially with students getting involved to influence their peers. This has a “profound effect,” he said.
However, Andrews pointed to the need for more people to help in the fight, even if they don’t have a college degree or are affiliated with one of the organizations now engaged.
“If you’re not already involved, get involved, because there’s plenty of room for you,” said Peter Rives of the Northwest Community Care Network, another forum speaker.
“We’re still just hitting the tip of the iceberg,” Chief Watson said.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.