In the wake of tragic incidents around the country recently, local residents should be aware of a killer still on the loose — not a gunman, but an equally deadly enemy: prescription drug overdoses.
As of last week, 23 deaths had occurred in Surry County so far this year which were linked to misuse or abuse of substances including painkillers and depressants. Confirmation of another eight cases was pending the results of toxicology testing, and two other victims receiving critical-care treatment weren’t expected to recover.
The stories behind some of the recent death statistics for Surry County, as offered during a meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners, highlight the sad consequences often surrounding overdoses:
• A group of friends out on the town faces a dilemma when one of them, who has made a bad decision by taking prescription medication, overdoses. The others are afraid of legal ramifications from that act, being unaware of the Good Samaritan Law that would have provided protection to them in such cases.
“So they dumped him off behind a funeral home instead of taking him to the hospital,” related Karen Eberdt, coordinator of Project Lazarus-Surry County, who spoke to city officials about the persistent problem involving prescription medications locally. Project Lazarus-Surry is a coalition formed several years ago to prevent overdoses, with Police Chief Dale Watson playing an instrumental role in that.
The youth who was dropped off was said to be one of the critical-care cases.
• Two people in the same household suffer fatal drug overdoses. It was learned they had received 340 dosage units of a certain drug, and after they died, only about 80 were left.
“I don’t know why in the world anybody would need to prescribe 340 pills,” said Commissioner Jon Cawley, who brought up that particular incident.
• Eberdt cited another case in which 120 dosage units of Xanax, a nervous system depressant, were found at an overdose scene.
• Figures from Northern Hospital of Surry County show that out of 70 overdose cases, 34 were speculated to be suicide cases.
The problem causes 120 deaths daily in the United States.
Efforts to remedy
If any good news surrounds such cases, it’s that efforts are under way in Surry County to deal with the problem on several fronts which touch all age groups.
“We have to change the culture,” Eberdt said of the climate surrounding prescription medication.
One effort involves educating young people about the dangers, with Eberdt pointing out that the most vulnerable time for students’ experimentation and possible addiction is within the first three months of entering the sixth grade.
Youths are being told to be wary of pills, which might look and taste like candy and are beneficial when prescribed to a patient, but can be extremely dangerous when improperly ingested by someone else. The need to not share medications also is being stressed, Eberdt said.
Outreach programs to provide such warnings have been undertaken in local schools and summer recreation programs across the county, including at Reeves Community Center in Mount Airy.
Eberdt also pointed to successful drug take-back measures that allow the public to dispose of unused or expired medications to reduce the potential for pills reaching the wrong hands.
Another initiative addresses the scenario that occurs after someone overdoses, involving a need to provide naxalone kits to various segments of the community, such as schools and law enforcement agencies, who might be in a position to intervene during a crisis. Naxalone is a medication used to reverse the effects of opioids, especially in overdoses.
Naxalone can be administered in the form of shots and nasally, with Eberdt displaying examples of each type during her presentation to Mount Airy officials.
“We have got to stop the deaths — we can’t help if the person’s dead.”
It was mentioned during the city council meeting that the local business community has tried to get naxalone kits into the hands of more people, including a large number provided by Gates Pharmacy in Mount Airy.
That prompted a proposal for municipal funding toward this initiative.
“Can we make some city money available to buy some naxalone kits?” asked Commissioner Steve Yokeley, also the mayor pro tem.
City Manager Barbara Jones told the commissioners that there are contingency funds available for such uses, as long as a “public purpose” is met.
After board members gave the nod for that assistance, the city manager said she would obtain information from Eberdt about the specific costs involved.
Mount Airy officials also voted 5-0 to provide a letter of support to Project Lazarus-Surry to aid its grant-seeking efforts to fund various initiatives.
“Awareness, awareness, awareness — talk, talk, talk,” Eberdt said of what’s needed to educate the public about such resources as naxalone and the existence of the Good Samaritan Law.
While various efforts have been under way to limit pill availability and inform citizens, Eberdt is at a loss in dealing with another key segment involved in the cycle: the medical community.
“I can’t stop the doctors,” the Project Lazarus official said of the fact so much of the medication is prescribed in the first place.
“We have a major conundrum,” Eberdt added of that issue. “We really have a problem in Surry County.”
The program coordinator mentioned that one solution has been a decision to hold some of Project Lazarus’ regular meetings at the local hospital to make it easier for physicians to attend and become more aware of the issues with medications.
“I take this personally — this means a ton to me,” Eberdt said of the group’s mission to alleviate prescription drug deaths.
Mount Airy officials said they think it is headed in the right direction.
“Project Lazarus is a really important part of this community,” Yokeley said.
Commissioner Shirley Brinkley also praised Eberdt’s leadership.
“Karen, I just can’t give you enough accolades.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.