WARRENTON—Speakers at Friday’s forum on the region’s opioid scourge didn’t cushion their conversation about the tough and tragic issue.
The Opioid Epidemic Town Hall began with bracing comments by Warrenton Council Member Sean Polster, a leader in Piedmont CRUSH (Community Resources United to Stop Heroin), the local group that hosted the gathering at the PATH Foundation in Fauquier’s county seat.
In the forum’s first hour, 100 people in the United States would overdose from opioid use, Warrenton Council Member Sean Polster told the standing-room-only audience of law enforcement officials, medical professionals, parents and everyday citizens.
“Fauquier and Culpeper are the epicenter of the opioid epidemic in the commonwealth of Virginia,” Polster said. “So we have some work to do. That’s why we’re having this discussion today.”
Culpeper Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Jonathan C. D’Souza, who moderated the forum, said he is reminded of the problem every time he goes on a clinical shift in emergency medicine, his specialty.
“Opioid use cuts across every strata of society in the United States,” Dr. D’Souza said. “Very few people can’t tell a personal story about how this epidemic has affected a friend, a loved one or a coworker, with permanent changes to that person’s life.”
The meeting’s three panelists acknowledged that it can be difficult for residents and their elected officials to talk frankly about the painful and widespread issue of drug addiction.
“People say, ‘This is a family matter. We don’t talk about this in public,’ ” Huntington, W.Va., Mayor Steve Williams said.
“But if, as a mayor, I said we don’t have that much of a drug problem, people would regard my leadership as disingenuous. If you name the problem, you can own it.”
In 2016 and 2017, drug overdoses killed more Americans than car accidents, gun violence, breast cancer or HIV/AIDS—making overdoses the leading cause of accidental death in the United States.
In 2017, the most recent year for which data was available, more than 72,000 Americans died of a drug overdose—a 9.5 percent increase from 2016, the federal Centers for Disease Control estimated.
That’s about 200 drug-overdose deaths every day, or one every eight minutes. Two-thirds of those deaths involved an opioid.
In 2017, Culpeper County witnessed 54 drug overdoses, with eight deaths, according to the Sheriff’s Office. In 2018, those incidents declined to 42 and four, respectively.
In 2016, West Virginia had the highest drug-overdose death rate of any state in the nation, with 52 deaths per 100,000 people.
The city of Huntington has been the U.S. locality hit hardest by opioid addiction, with its attendant ills of crime, poverty and family discord.
But once different elements in Huntington’s community began pulling together in late 2014, its citizenry put a big dent in what had seemed an intractable problem, Williams said. Overdoses are down 40 percent, and deaths from overdose are down more than 50 percent.
“I say that Huntington is the epicenter of the solution to the opioid epidemic, because what we’ve been doing is nothing short of remarkable,” he said. “Everybody in our town has taken ownership of this issue.”
It is vital for people and their communities to end the societal shame placed on people with drug dependence, said Jae K. Davenport, Virginia’s deputy secretary of public safety.
“We have to work … to get rid of that stigma,” Davenport said. “When somebody has a heart attack or diabetes, we treat it. There has to be education that addiction is not a choice, that it is a chronic behavioral disorder.”
Karl Colder, a recently retired Drug Enforcement Administration official, joined Williams and Davenport in urging communities to combine harm-reduction efforts, for those unable or unwilling to seek treatment, with comprehensive addiction treatment.
Harm reduction saves lives, they said. Those efforts can include needle-exchange programs and widely providing Naloxone (the overdose antidote also known as Narcan) to reduce drug-user infections, diseases and deaths, the Warrenton panelists said.
Davenport noted that Virginia State Police and state probation and correction officers now all carry Narcan to avert overdose deaths.
Colder, now the development director of The Mentor Foundation, said he recognizes that the average police chief or sheriff, even a DEA administrator, may not want to support a potentially controversial harm-reduction program.
“Well, you have to get into it and to understand it,” he said. “It’s a health issue.”
It is important that people appreciate that the pandemic affects lawmen just as it does every other sector of society, said Colder, formerly the special agent in charge of DEA operations in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
“This happens within our families as well,” he said. “I know two individuals here today who have lost loved ones to the opioid epidemic. So nobody is immune to this. Even your law enforcement officers have to endure it.”
A multi-pronged approach is essential, with law enforcement, health professionals, public schools, clergy, colleges and universities all working together, Williams and Colder said.
“You can’t arrest your way out” of the problem, they said. Interdiction, prevention, education and treatment are all needed.
Having a healthy and candid community dialogue is key, Williams said.
People have to know they’re being heard, he said, and residents have to be willing to have conversations with someone who has a different opinion.
“It’s OK if they don’t agree,” Williams said. “Just as long as they’re not agreeing based on the facts, [instead of] on an urban legend.”
Again and again, he stressed the need for people to collaborate to help their fellow citizens and fight the opioid menace.
“Collaboration will lead to partnerships, and that will create trust,” Williams said. “And then hope will be the outcome.”
Piedmont CRUSH was established in November 2016 to combine federal, state, public and private resources to address the opioid/heroin epidemic.
The group’s stakeholders include Culpeper, Orange, Fauquier, Greene and Madison counties.
From 6 to 8 p.m. April 4 at Germanna Community College’s Daniel Center in Culpeper, CRUSH will hold another town hall meeting on the region’s opioid crisis, Polster said.
A video of Friday’s discussion can be seen on CRUSH’s Facebook page.