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Warriors in the opioid epidemic

  • Charles County,St Mary's County,Calvert County,Prince George's County,Anne Arundel County
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Prince Frederick, MD- Every day in America, thousands die from drug overdoses. Many of those deaths are connected to the current opioid epidemic that is spreading like wildfire across our nation.

On March 1, Governor Larry Hogan declared a state emergency in the opioid crisis. In October, President Donald Trump declared the epidemic a national public health emergency.

In 2016, more than 64,000 Americans lost their lives due to overdoses. It’s the leading cause of unintentional deaths in America—more than motor vehicle accidents and gun violence combined.

On Monday, Nov. 27 Congressman Steny Hoyer [D-5th District] convened a round table discussion at the College of Southern Maryland in Prince Frederick. Hoyer invited law enforcement, doctors, health services officials, and school leaders, who are all members of Opioid Intervention Teams. Each of Hoyer’s five counties were represented; St. Mary’s, Charles, Calvert, Prince George’s and Anne Arundel.

Also joining the discussion was U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, a native of St. Mary’s County. Adams confirmed the opioid crisis is his top priority.

“This is not a partisan issue, it is an issue for the American people,” Hoyer commented during his opening remarks. “We have not put enough money into treatment,” Hoyer exclaimed.

Adams concurred, saying addiction is a mental illness and it needs to be treated like a disease. “We need to get past the stigma and devote resources to recovery.” He also noted the importance of communities working together to beat this crisis.

“Physicans need to find alternative pain management. We need to reverse adverse childhood traumas. Law enforcement needs to be on our side. Religious communities and business leaders need to also take part in the process. Addiction is not the responsibility of one office.”

Frances Phillips, acting health officer for Anne Arundel County, said she was shocked by the number of opioid deaths since she returned to the position this summer. “Anne Arundel County is the third jurisdiction in the state in regards to fatalities. As of last week, we had a total of 943 overdoses, 134 of those were fatal.”

In April, Anne Arundel County launched a new initiative to help those battling addictions. “Safe Stations” are in place at both fire departments and police stations, where drug addicts to can seek treatment with a crisis response counselor 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Since the implementation of “Safe Stations” more than 300 people have come forward looking for treatment.

Among several of the round table participants, the need for timely treatment was evident. “Once patients are treated of an overdose and are released from the hospital, they have no continuity of care,” William Stephens, director of Department of Emergency Services for Charles County, said. Hoyer agreed, “If we don’t offer treatment, we’re not going to succeed."

Similar complaints were made by Dr. Larry Polsky, health Officer from Calvert County. “We need to invest more in research. The treatments we have are not adequate.”

Also among the focus of the opioid epidemic are the victims of the crisis—the children. In Prince George’s County, the Department of Social Services is working to train CPS (Child Protective Services) workers. “They are in the homes with parents who are under the influence. We’re training them for how to deal with the entire family,” Gloria Brown Burnett, director of Social Services, said.

The effects on the young victims are also pulling school systems into the epidemic. “We’re in a difficult spot here. We want to help but we need the recognition that children are caught in the middle of this,” said Dr. Kim Hill, superintendent for Charles County Public Schools.

“That’s the hidden epidemic here.” Adams said. “Every child who has a parent who goes to jail or a parent who dies of an overdose is a child who is then vulnerable and at risk for themselves becoming an opioid addict.”

St. Mary’s County Sheriff Tim Cameron said the county focuses on a strong relationship with the schools, health department, MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital and Walden-Sierra Treatment Center to combat the crisis. “The response from the sheriff’s office is one of education, prevention and enforcement.”

The county educates through town hall meetings, the D.A.R.E program and training for first responders. The county’s prescription drop boxes are available as a prevention method. On the side of enforcement, Cameron noted the county’s efforts to investigate every fatal overdose as a homicide in attempts to prosecute the drug dealers.

“As law enforcement, our job is to get it off the streets,” Calvert County Sheriff Mike Evans said. “One out of every five traffic stops, we’re finding some type of drug in the car.” Evans said the county needs more money to stop the drugs from coming into Calvert.

“We took the initiative to reduce the number of opioids used in our Emergency Department (ED),” noted Dean Teague, President and CEO of Calvert Health Systems. “We have reduced the number of opioids in our ED by 90 percent this year. We decided it was important to get out in front of the problem and seek alternative treatments for patients.” Teague also noted that patients are requesting that doctor’s not treat them with opioids because they fear becoming addicted.

After hearing from representatives from each county, Adams reiterated the importance of educating the public. “If we don’t talk about it, it’s not going to get better. Share this information in the community.”

Hoyer called the round table participants the warriors in the effort to stop the opioid epidemic. He quoted former Maryland Governor and Vice President Ted Agnew saying, “The cost of failure far exceeds the price of progress.”

After the conclusion of the round table discussion, both Hoyer and Adams met privately with recovering addicts to hear their stores.

Cameron spoke with TheBayNet.com about how St. Mary’s will proceed in its battle against opioid use. “I think it reaffirms the fact our opioid planning crisis team is using some of the same initiatives, some of the same thoughts, and focusing on treatment and getting people into treatment and I feel good about that.”

Cameron said it’s important to keep talking about it and de-stigmatize the topic and get treatment for addicts. He said St. Mary’s County is also looking to implement a program similar to Anne Arundel County’s “Safe Stations.”

In a statement released by Hoyer’s office, he said, “I appreciated learning more about what each of the jurisdictions in the Fifth District are doing to combat the epidemic – including education, prevention, treatment, and recovery. In order to fully address this growing crisis, we must work together at every level of government – local, state, and federal – to help those struggling with addiction.”

Contact Joy Shrum at j.shrum@thebaynet.com

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