Figures have been finalized and the bad news is, 43 people died from medication overdoses in Surry County during 2015. The good news is that efforts are intensifying to remedy the problem.
Last year’s death total from the abuse or misuse of opiates — a group of drugs used for treating pain — represented an increase from 2014, when 32 opiate-related deaths occurred, and 2013, when 30 were logged.
“I am very concerned about our number,” said Karen Eberdt, coordinator of Project Lazarus-Surry County, a coalition of educational, medical, law enforcement and other representatives who are working to reduce the deaths.
Eberdt does not mince words when discussing the impact of a problem that most recently cost 43 local residents their lives — three more than the Sandy Hook and San Bernardino shootings combined.
“I see this as a hemorrhage and we need to get a tourniquet on it,” said Eberdt, who in 2014 took on the coordinator role for Project Lazarus, which was formed in 2011.
The death total for 2015 might actually be higher than 43, due to such factors as HIPPA privacy rules preventing officials from monitoring all death cases.
Surry Emergency Services Director John Shelton estimates that another five to 10 opiate-related deaths probably could be added to the list based on that.
One bright spot last year was that EMS calls decreased to 169, from 199 in 2014, where poisoning/drug ingestion or substance/drug abuse was the primary impression — the evaluation of the patient based on signs, symptoms, patient’s chief complaint and other factors.
A large portion of the deaths came toward the end of 2015, with the total reported as 23 in early October, but which ballooned to 43 by Dec. 31.
Part of larger problem
Shelton, the local emergency services director, said overdose victims include folks from different walks of life. In some cases, younger people gain access to prescription painkillers found in parents’ or grandparents’ medicine cabinets, with which they then experiment — or youths simply get in with the “wrong crowd.”
In other cases, Shelton said, people are prescribed such drugs because of an injury, become addicted to them and later overdose.
However, Eberdt was quick to point out during a recent interview that the overdose problem in Surry is part of a larger one afflicting the state and the nation. It’s been said to account for 120 deaths a day across the U.S., which she called an “old figure.”
“I don’t want anyone to think that Surry County was ridiculously high,” the coordinator said of the most recent death total. “We have a problem, absolutely, but not more so than other counties.” Eberdt expects the statewide death rate to be “much higher.”
Also, many counties aren’t as far along as Surry in terms of launching a coalition, with the local Project Lazarus effort a model for other communities.
Both Shelton and Eberdt agree that the modern drug culture, the proliferation of prescription pain medication in society in general, is a big part of the problem.
“Overall, it’s just too easy to get,” Shelton said of the supply chain.
Some doctors over-prescribe the medications for various reasons, which has led to a huge stockpile of the drugs.
Eberdt said patients who truly need painkillers should be able to get them, but the supply that has resulted from prescription practices lends itself to abuse and creates a snowball effect. This can lead to unauthorized persons gaining access to pills to sell on the black market.
Some doctors are bucking the trend that’s been fueled by profit-minded pharmaceutical companies whose advertisements can serve to make doctors feel pressured to prescribe patients certain drugs. And when one health-care provider doesn’t supply medications, a patient might simply go elsewhere.
“We need to applaud the doctors who are…willing to take a stand for our community like that, even under the possible scrutiny of social media,” Eberdt said of the pressures they face, which can include online complaints. “It’s a Catch-22 for them.”
Regular meetings of the Project Lazarus coalition are held at both Northern Hospital of Surry County and Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital in Elkin, to better allow doctors to tap into efforts to reduce the proliferation of prescription painkillers.
The overdose situation is being attacked on a variety of fronts.
“Prevention is still a huge piece of what we are doing,” Eberdt said of Project Lazarus’ efforts.
• Reaching out to kids early in their lives is one objective, since the most vulnerable time for students’ experimentation and possible addiction is within the first three months of entering the sixth grade. Athletes are another group targeted, since they might be prone to encounter painkillers due to sports-related injuries.
Prescription drug awareness T-shirts and pledge-signing campaigns are part of this effort, as is teaching kids about the Good Samaritan Law that allows them to get medical help for friends who overdose without being prosecuted themselves. Younger persons also are being educated about recognizing the difference between prescription pills and candy.
Another step in this regard involves plans to create a DVD that Eberdt hopes to show 15 times by the end of 2016 at schools, churches, theaters and other venues. It will include a documentary called “Overtaken” and speeches by community leaders, in addition to a personal story by a family who lost a child to an accidental overdose.
• The distribution of Naloxone kits, containing a medication used to reverse the effects of opioids, especially in overdoses, is another initiative of Project Lazarus. Efforts have been under way to put kits into the hands of those who might encounter overdose victims, including law enforcement officers and others.
In November, 500 Naloxone kits were prepared by volunteers at Northern Hospital of Surry County for distribution to health-care providers in the county. The goal is for at least 1,000 more kits to go out this year, and making Naloxone more readily available through the county health department.
Another safeguard involves doctors co-prescribing Naloxone with high-risk medications.
• Pill take-back programs are an ongoing part of the group’s mission, which allow the public to turn in unused or expired medications and reduce the pills’ potential for harm.
The Mount Airy Police Department has a permanent drop box that received 262,394 dosage units in 2015 alone, with the total exceeding 400,000 among all law enforcement agencies in the county last year.
Despite such numbers, these efforts only go so far. “The market is flooded and you just can’t take all of this back,” Eberdt said of the volume involved.
• Another goal is long-term treatment for persons who’ve become addicted. Often, rehab programs are available for only short times, which is inadequate to deal with the problem, said Eberdt, who is seeking grant funds to establish a behavioral health program locally.
Although she believes progress is being made, Eberdt won’t be satisfied until the overdose problem is eradicated.
“We can’t have any more people die,” she said. “I feel passionate about this.”
Eberdt and local health professionals agree that overdoses won’t disappear overnight, and will require the proverbial village getting involved — including turning someone in to the police if drugs are seen illegally changing hands.
“I think the community needs to feel offended when they see or hear of prescription drugs being misused or abused,” Dr. Jason Stopyra commented.
“This problem won’t go away unless families and friends help change the culture and trends we are seeing in Surry County.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.