Both the number of people dying from overdoses of prescription medications and drug-related medical incidents decreased in Surry County during 2012, but a “tremendous problem” yet exists, officials say.
“One death is still one too many,” Mount Airy Police Chief Dale Watson said Thursday in reaction to figures released earlier in the day by Surry Emergency Services Director John Shelton.
They show that 17 confirmed overdose deaths occurred last year along with about 450 drug-related incidents. That’s compared to at least 30 deaths and about 500 drug incidents in 2011, when local officials launched a community coalition to address an issue labeled as epidemic.
Shelton said the death figures can be imprecise due to Surry residents being taken to out-of-county medical facilities in some cases, which sometimes prevents following up on their outcomes due to privacy regulations. “There could be more,” he said of the fatalities.
“I think the statistics indicate we are showing some improvement,” said the police chief, who has led a coalition task force to attack prescription medication abuse and misuse on a variety of fronts in the county.
“But the numbers also indicate there’s still an issue out there,” Watson added Thursday.
In response to that problem, a initiative known as Project Lazarus Surry has been under way, patterned after a similar effort that greatly reduced overdoses in Wilkes County. It involves not only law enforcement, but the medical, drug-treatment and pharmaceutical communities; schools; churches; and others, an all-encompassing approach that Watson believes is critical.
“So far, the community is coming together on this issue,” the police chief said. “We’re making headway, but we’re still at the tip of that iceberg.”
Watson continued, “The public is aware there is an issue.”
“The awareness has helped a lot,” Shelton said regarding a key element of coalition efforts to inform the public of prescription drug dangers.
However, he said that all one has to do to gauge the lingering magnitude of prescription drug abuse is talk to hospital emergency room doctors, “who will tell you it’s still a major problem.”
Narcan A Key
Along with the educational factor, the dispensing of Narcan — a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose — was a key last year in reversing the trend, the emergency services director believes.
By providing Narcan to those such as family members of opiate users, they can immediately react if they note overdose symptoms such as respiratory depression or unconsciousness, Shelton explained, thus saving medical-response time — and lives.
Typically, that drug is administered by injection into the thigh, which wakes up the person and aids in reversing the effects of the overdose.
“It became an aggressive approach last year to curb the amount of drug overdoses and it’s helped quite a bit,” Shelton said.
“It is a state program,” he said of the Narcan-dispensing effort, which has been emphasized in a five-county area including Surry where prescription drug overdoses have been especially problematic.
171,422 Units Collected
“Of course, our 24-hour drop-box has been a tremendous success,” Watson said of another helpful factor, a collection container in the lobby of the city police station where unwanted medications can be taken.
“Last year, we took in 171,422 dosage units,” the police chief said.
Other initiatives to reduce the quantities available have involved working with the medical community to limit the drugs prescribed, although Shelton emphasized that no one is trying to deprive patients of medications they truly need.
Watson cited a need for more members of the community at large to get involved with the coalition, which holds regular meetings that are announced by The Mount Airy News, other than just law enforcement, medical and other professionals.
Unfortunately, though, people don’t usually get involved, or passionate about prescription drug abuse and misuse, “until it affects you or your family,” Watson said.
“The people that have been affected by this issue are the loudest voices.”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.