DOBSON — With Surry County suffering at least 48 drug-overdose deaths so far in 2017, local officials are striking back, including their recent creation of a new position, that of opioid response director.
“It is something that has been planned for some time,” Sandra Snow, assistant county manager for human resources and operations, said Wednesday.
The Surry Board of Commissioners voted earlier this month to establish the new department head position. The commissioners’ plans call for the person selected for the job to develop a strategic plan to combat the county’s growing opioid abuse problem and work with various local agencies to implement the plan.
“That’s quite impressive,” Surry Health Director Samantha Ange said Wednesday regarding the fact that elected officials in a rural county such as Surry are taking such an initiative.
Surry Emergency Services Director John Shelton said Wednesday that the move makes sense because the abuse and misuse of prescription medication and related problems now affect virtually every local agency involved with public health and safety.
“I was thinking the other day how really bad it has gotten in the county,” Shelton said of the overdose problem which not only involves prescription drugs, but another recent development. “The heroin use has gone up,” he added of a trend prevalent in other areas of the country which has been creeping into Surry.
Shelton said the 48 deaths so far this year, compared to 32 during all of 2016, could be a conservative figure. “We’ve got a couple that haven’t come back in,” he said regarding official rulings for deaths which have not been counted in the total along with others that might not be known about.
The initiative to engage a number of local agencies to combat the drug epidemic will involve the opioid response director working with a new Opioid Response Advisory Council that will begin meeting later this fall. Its makeup includes representatives from the human services, public safety, substance abuse services and medical sectors.
Snow said Wednesday that it is not known when the new director will be hired.
“We have just advertised it,” she said of the position.
In creating the new “cabinet-level”-type post, county leaders envisioned a candidate with a background in public health education or a related field, who will be a self-motivated organizer.
The goal will be to attack the drug problem from multiple sides, including prevention, treatment and recovery, recognizing the impact on families and the community and the strain it is putting on governmental resources.
Shelton, the emergency services director, said finding solutions to deal with those already addicted represents a monumental challenge and one of the goals is to prevent people from using opioids or similar substances in the first place.
Public education component
In addition to filling the position of opioid response director, Ange, the county health director, said Wednesday that she is working to hire a public health education specialist to replace Karen Eberdt.
Eberdt left that position in July, which included serving as coordinator of the Project Lazarus-Surry coalition since 2014.
The local Project Lazarus organization was formed in 2011 in response to growing problems surrounding prescription medications.
It includes a coalition of public health, educational, medical, ministerial and other professionals.
During her tenure, Eberdt spearheaded a number of initiatives involving the schools and community at large.
The application period for her former position closed on Aug. 30. Seven applications were received.
“We’re interviewing now,” Ange added Wednesday.
The person selected for the job will handle the substance abuse portion of a combined task that also involves another public health educator who now is working in local schools.
Ange said in light of the new county department head position and other changes, it is uncertain at this point how all this will be coordinated with Project Lazarus-Surry.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.