For months, a coalition formed to combat the prescription drug problem in Surry County largely disappeared from public view — but similar to Mark Twain, rumors of its death were greatly exaggerated.
Thanks to a recently appointed coordinator, new life is being breathed in to the local Project Lazarus campaign, initially launched in 2011 to combat abuse and misuse of medications which had reached an epidemic level in Surry.
“Personal feelings” about drugs led Karen Eberdt to take that position, she explained Thursday after a meeting to renew the coalition’s efforts was held in Mount Airy at the Surry Community College Center for Public Safety.
While the problem affects people of all age groups who are struggling with addictions and dying from overdoses, Eberdt is especially concerned for the young. As a mother, the Mount Airy resident of nearly four years seeks to ensure that parents can raise their children in a community without such a threat.
“This is too big of a problem for us not to be actively doing something to benefit our children and make this a better environment,” Eberdt said.
Thursday’s meeting provided a fresh beginning in this regard, with about 30 people attending — representing such fields as public health, education, law enforcement, drug counseling, the ministry and other community stakeholders.
“There were a lot more people here than I was anticipating,” Eberdt said while surveying the gathering that filled a classroom at the public safety center.
“I just started a month and a half ago,” added Eberdt, who has a degree in economics from N.C. State University, but counts many years as a stay-at-home mom among her chief credentials.
She assumed the part-time coordinator’s position in the hopes that the important work it started will be taken to the next level.
The Project Lazarus coalition, named for the biblical figure who was raised from the dead, got off to an energetic start in 2011, when at least 30 confirmed drug-overdose deaths of Surry Countians were reported.
Public awareness the group brought to the issue, coupled with new regulations limiting the dispensing of medications to curtail abuses and allowing wider use of overdose antidotes by the public, led to significant drops in deaths although call volume for such cases remained high.
But keeping a coordinator in place to organize activities among the many groups involved in the coalition has been a problem. Eberdt is the third person to occupy that role since Project Lazarus began here. The first was an employee of Surry Health and Nutrition Center who left to take a job in another county.
The second resigned, citing pressures involving his full-time work with an outpatient therapy agency. There has been no coordinator for about a year since he quit last summer, and while drug take-back efforts have continued among local students and police, the collective movement fell by the wayside.
On Thursday, the coalition held its first community-wide meeting since April 2013 and Eberdt said she viewed it as a way to “get this back up and going.” More meetings are planned in July and August, she said.
Efforts are in the works to keep the prescription drug issue at the forefront by attacking it on varying fronts. “This cat has got to be skinned in a couple of different ways,” Eberdt said.
Among those outlined Thursday were:
• A pharmacist/prescriber initiative in which material will be distributed along with narcotics to educate patients about the need to properly dispose of unused or expired medications and containing information about drop-off locations. This is a way to build awareness at the beginning of the process, Eberdt said. “We have a couple of pharmacies interested in helping us do that already.”
• Expanding the coalition presence at well-attended events in the area, in addition to the Mount Airy Autumn Leaves Festival and Elkin Pumpkin Festival. This will involve engaging attendees in discussions about drug safety through tactics including offering temporary tattoos to kids.
“When you’re putting a tattoo on a child, a parent is not going to leave — a grandparent is not going to leave,” Eberdt said of the opportunity to build a rapport.
• Medication education for senior citizens and youths at sites such as community centers.
• A continuation of efforts in local schools, including pill take-back nights at football games and awareness initiatives undertaken by high school students who have spread the word about drug dangers through T-shirts, prizes and other efforts. “Kids hearing from their peers — how awesome is that?” Eberdt said of the extra value of students delivering the message.
“And they’re going to be holding their parents more accountable” regarding drugs, she said.
• A student-produced public service announcement that will be distributed to civic organizations, supplementing meetings planned with those groups and at churches.
• The seeking of grants to fund activities. “Clearly we’re going to need a lot of funding to do some of the initiatives we have going forward,” Eberdt said.
Capt. Alan Freeman of the Mount Airy Police Department, who attended Thursday’s meeting, was more concerned with who wasn’t there: representatives of the medical, pharmaceutical and pain clinic sectors. They are who “we really needed to have today,” Freeman said of the key roles those individuals play in the prescription medication cycle.
“That’s the meat of the whole thing.”
A woman in the audience with knowledge of the health-care industry pointed out that doctors have busy schedules that often prevent their attendance at meetings. Holding them at night, rather than during the day, could help, she said.
“But if you feed them,” the woman said of gatherings that include meals, physicians usually are eager to take part.
“That’s what the drug reps do,” she added. “You get more bang for your buck.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.