Rowan County to hold forum on opioid epidemic
By Josh Bergeron
SALISBURY — As deaths from opiate poisoning rise, Rowan County leaders are making plans to hold a forum on opioid abuse.
The forum, still in its planning stages, would include input from a variety of local leaders, including elected officials, police chiefs, first responders, the sheriff, district attorney and college presidents. Its purpose would be to address causes of the opioid epidemic and how to mitigate it. Rowan County Health Director Nina Oliver said the goal is to hold the forum in late August.
Rowan County has felt the effects of the nationwide opioid epidemic. Since 1999, only seven counties in North Carolina have had more deaths from opioid poisoning, according to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services statistics.
Rowan’s yearly number of opioid poisoning deaths reached a record of 29 in 2011, and it hit that number again in 2015 — the latest year for which statistics are available.
The death numbers, however, don’t present a full picture of the opioid problem. Roughly three of four overdoses in Rowan County are reversed by using a medication known as naloxone, which blocks the effects of opioids, according to Rowan County Emergency Medical Services staff.
EMS Division Chief Lennie Cooper said the county’s EMS staff has carried naloxone, also known as Narcan, for more than 20 years. In recent history, its use in overdose reversals has increased sharply, Cooper said.
On Friday alone, Cooper said, Rowan County EMS responded to five overdose calls.
In a recent presentation to county commissioners, Chairman Greg Edds presented statistics showing an average Rowan County resident has 1.12 opioid prescriptions and 84.8 opioid pills at any one time . The state averages for those same statistics were 1.06 and 78.3, respectively.
“I don’t mind being above average, but that’s one of the numbers we don’t want to be above average in,” Edds said.
Statistics provided by Oliver show the total costs of lost work in Rowan County from poisoning fatalities, which includes opioids, to be $44.54 million. From 2013 to 2015, 22.8 people per 100,000 died from opioid overdoses, according to statistics provided by Oliver. That’s more than any neighboring county.
If things go according to plan, Rowan County’s opioid forum would be one of many hosted across North Carolina. The N.C. Association of County Commissioners has asked its members to hold similar forums, said Oliver and County Manager Aaron Church.
Oliver said the goals for the forum include increasing awareness of the opioid problem among local leaders, discussing the causes of addiction, and talking about prevention and treatment programs.
She said people with substance abuse problems, including opioids, often have a difficult time recovering. It’s normal to relapse several times, Oliver said.
She has organized a planning committee of people who will decide on details of the forum.
Oliver also mentioned two local initiatives that could aid people suffering from opioid addiction.
The first involves distributing free Narcan kits through the Rowan County Health Department. She said the program would start within the next month. It requires recipients of the kit to receive training about how to use its.
A second initiative, Oliver said, involves prescription drop boxes placed around the county and at each police station. That initiative is active.
Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246