Health department hosts county opioid forum

Published 8:01 pm Friday, September 22, 2017

Thursday night, the multipurpose room at Beaufort County Community College’s Building 10 was filled with people intent on solving a nationwide epidemic on a local level.

Beaufort County forum on opioid abuse brought together representatives from the health department, school system, department of social services, law enforcement, EMS, mental health services and more with Beaufort County Commissioners to discuss what methods can be used to combat the over-prescription, illegal sale, ultimate addictions to, and overdoses from, opioids such as prescription painkillers and heroin.

It’s a national epidemic that’s forcefully made itself known at home, according to Madson.

“I’m surprised how much overdosing has become such an issue in our country. I may be less surprised (than others) because I’ve seen it coming for a few years, but as for how strong it’s gotten here in the past few years? Yes, I’m surprised,” Madson said.

The forum was the outgrowth of a request by the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners earlier this year, when then-President Fred McClure sent a letter to all 100 of North Carolina county governments, asking that North Carolina’s epidemic be tackled locally. A list of speakers talked about all aspects of abuse: from Lisa Gibbs-Lee, with Beaufort County DSS, who spoke about the effects of opioid addiction on Beaufort County families, to Dr. Anthony Frank, the emergency department director at Vidant Medical Center, who talked about the need to balance pain management and opioid prescriptions.

Carnie Hedgepeth, Beaufort County Emergency Managament director, gave the audience some hard facts about the county’s opiate addiction.

While Hedgepeth presented the assembled crowd with statistics — North Carolina has had a 73 percent increase in opioid-related deaths since 2005; the state is now in the top 10 states for opioid deaths — but it was the local statistics that caught the audience by surprise. In 2017, Beaufort County EMS squads have responded to 167 overdose calls: that’s more than three per week, every week of 2017. Eighty-eight of those overdoses have been in Chocowinity; the rest responded to by Washington Fire/Rescue/EMS, 23; Beaufort County EMS, 22; and Broad Creek EMS, 17.

“The data I gave on the 167 overdoses — that caught people’s attention,” Hedgepeth said, adding that not all 167 overdoses were caused by opioids — some were intentional, some were accidental, some were other drugs. However, of the 20 calls EMS responded to in which the subject was not breathing, five were not able to be revived. All five deaths were attributed to opioids, Hedgepeth said.

That many overdoses has a toll, he said. First responders are not only having to take on a higher call volume, but take on the stress of being called to a scene to revive someone who should be in the prime of their lives, but are on the brink of death because of opioids.

“When you see a 22-year-old in a full code, it’s the same thing as working on kids: it’s an additional stress on the responder,” Hedgepeth said.

Hedgepeth said education is the key to curbing opiate addiction, teaching children about the dangers of the drugs when they’re young.

“What we’re dealing with here, is almost every family, if not every family, at some point has had something happen where they have been prescribed legal opioids and these unused drugs have been stuck away with the thought we may need these in the future,” Hedgepeth said. “Being able to see the raw data shows people cannot just manage it — this is highly addictive. So, we teach our kids when they’re younger, ‘You don’t touch this. Leave it alone,’ but they see us as adults with an extreme headache, or back pain, say ‘Oh, I’m going to take this stronger pill.’ … They don’t know how to deal with that when they’re 20 when maybe they decide to take one with alcohol.”

For Madson, weaning the addicted off of opiates in Beaufort County is going to take a multi-pronged approach.

“We want to start putting some tangible interventions into our community. We really have to address the abuse of prescriptions; we need to really address prevention and treatment; and then we have to recognize the need for getting the illegal substances off the streets, as well,” Madson said.

Madson will be compiling the suggestions from the round table discussions at the Thursday night forum before handing them to the behavioral task force. From there, the group will look at ways to put the ideas into practice: education and awareness, EMS personnel’s greater access to Narcan, used to counteract opioid overdoses, reducing the number of pain pills prescribed in the community and addressing mental issues surrounding substance abuse, including the shortage of drug treatment facilities in the county. Some of the suggestions may not cost anything and be implemented within agencies’ normal budget; others might require seeking grants, Madson said.

In all, the forum was a first step in getting county leadership on board with combating the opioid epidemic on a local level, Madson said.

“I think that most everybody agreed it was beneficial for us and to start addressing the issue in the county more than we have in the past,” Madson said.