Despite a leadership change, Project Lazarus-Surry is not having to start from scratch, with new coordinator Buzz Ellis saying that one of his main challenges is maintaining its already strong momentum.
Ellis recently assumed that part-time position, which involves guiding a communitywide task force seeking to reduce prescription drug overdoses in the county. He is taking over for Donna Parks, a health department educator who served as Project Lazarus’ coordinator for more than a year until leaving Surry in late 2012 for another job in Watauga County.
Ellis, whose main occupation is as executive director of Carolina Child and Family Services, a outpatient therapy agency based at Flat Rock Presbyterian Church, said he is joining Project Lazarus at a good point in its existence.
“I was shocked and amazed and pleased to see how much traction the effort has got,” Ellis said Tuesday of the Project Lazarus task force that was formed in February 2011 in response to local prescription drug problems labeled as epidemic. It is patterned after a similar program in Wilkes County which produced a turnaround in drug problems there.
The new coordinator credits Parks and Mount Airy Police Chief Dale Watson, who spearheaded the group, with developing a coalition of community partners that has achieved success with its mission.
“It’s really at a high level now with participation,” Ellis said of involvement in Project Lazarus by the medical, pharmaceutical, educational, ministerial, law enforcement, public health, local government, counseling and other sectors.
“Churches are involved, schools are involved — there’s a lot more involvement than I thought,” Ellis said.
In the role of coordinator — which includes serving as a liaison for the respective partners and managing their efforts — he says one objective is to continue setting realistic goals for the organization leading to safer practices involving prescription medications.
“I think it’s just keeping the energy level high,” Ellis said. “And just keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
The new coordinator is encouraged by achievements such as working with hospital officials to better control the dispensing of prescription drugs that can be abused or misused. He also applauds a 24-hour drop-box for unwanted medications at the Mount Airy Police Department which is reducing their chances of reaching the wrong hands.
As of last week, 203,487 dosage units had been received there, according to Chief Watson.
“To me, that’s just remarkable,” Watson said of what the effort has achieved so far. “I’m looking forward to reaching the one-million mark.”
Public awareness of such programs, and the prescription drug danger itself, is partly credited for early successes of Project Lazarus-Surry.
That has included overdose deaths dropping from around 30 in 2011 to 17 in 2012, with Surry’s fatalities sometimes hard to pinpoint because of patients being treated at out-of-county medical facilities.
Yet drug-related incidents continue to occur at a high level, Surry Emergency Services Director John Shelton has said, including about 500 in 2011 and around 450 last year.
The lingering seriousness of the problem can be gauged by two incidents that recently devastated a local family, Watson related, which illustrates the all-inclusive nature of addiction.
They involved the overdose death of a 38-year-old woman, then that of her mother soon after. The father and husband of those two victims then was brought in for an intervention in order to save him from the same fate, the police chief said.
“Even though we’ve made strides, one death is too many,” Watson said.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.