Addiction to opioids and heroin. It is a deadly epidemic, one that has no societal boundaries; it’s been widely acknowledged by local and state, as well as the national, governments. Game plans are being developed in many quarters to forewarn the public of its menace and that a new approach is needed to equip health officials with the information and tools they need to combat the disease as well as for health care providers to treat citizens who are struggling within its grasp.
While the public battle is still a fairly recent appearance, questions from various directions abound. But concerns center around one key query: Is progress being made?
Some should be made on National Drug Take-Back Day, on Saturday, April 30, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when various officials are hoping that unused opioids — that are often stolen from and by loved ones — will be relinquished to authorities for disposal.
And, of course, that people who are still using them under a doctor’s supervision are keeping them locked up.
Joan Webb Scornaienchi, executive director of HC DrugFree, spends her days spreading the word about the nonprofit’s In The KNOW campaign.
“If you need opioids, keep the lids on the bottle and keep them secured. Period,” Webb Scornaienchi said. “The message is simple, and we’re starting to see that this campaign is making a difference.”
She hasn’t “yet met one opioid addict” that started out by scoring heroin on the street. “They start with legal prescription pain medications,” she said, “but the kids who get hooked don’t ask mom and dad for more pills when they can get heroin cheaper on the street.”
Webb Scornaienchi said that when she speaks in public, she tells parents “that they can’t love their kids enough or spend enough money to get them off drugs and keep them safe. People are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to get a family member unhooked, because that isn’t usually covered by insurance,” she said. “This epidemic has destroyed some families financially,” as well as emotionally.
Her talks aren’t the only way that HC DrugFree is reaching the masses with potentially life-saving messages. “We have information [on tear-off cards] available in 2,200 medical waiting areas,” Webb Scornaienchi said, “and some pharmacists are giving clients our materials, too.”
Just Toss It
According to data from the Howard County Police, deaths related to opiates and heroin reached 16 in 2015, which means that number “doubled” from the previous year, said Maura Rossman, health officer.
Rossman said that, “The progress that we have made is in increasing awareness of the epidemic and in the use of Naxolone [also known as Narcan, a drug used to revive overdose victims]. That has been effective.”
But the key is to nail the root cause, “which may be the hardest thing to do,” Rossman said, “in terms of preventing people from getting hooked in the first place, notably via prescription drug abuse,” while reiterating Webb Scornaienchi’s warnings to “lock up the drugs so others can’t get them.”
Rossman also cited HC DrugFree’s efforts to make information available to the general public via the tear-off cards. “Just getting rid of the unused medicine is the important thing to remember at present,” she said.
“If you get 30 pills after dental surgery and only use three, you should be discarding those unused meds,” she said. “We’re creatures of habit, and understandably, when we pay for something we don’t want to toss good medicine that you needed a prescription for.
“However,” she said, “this situation calls for new practices and new behavior.”
In Anne Arundel County, Owen McEvoy, spokesman for County Executive Steve Schuh, noted the county actually has seen a spike in opioid use between mid-February and mid-March.
“While it’s not growing at the alarming rate that it was from 2014–15,” said McEvoy, “there’s been little change in terms of overdoses and usage. It isn’t dropping at the rate we’d hoped.”
Recently, Schuh and Anne Arundel County’s Department of Health have also presented a public awareness campaign that included public service announcements that run on the county’s cable station, as well as ESPN, TNT and TBS.
“Our most recent focus has been outreach to our local schools,” McEvoy said, noting that on April 20 the county is sponsoring an awareness event at Northeast High School, including an assembly during the day and a discussion at the school that night.
Anne Arundel, like Howard County, is partnering with drug stores (CVS, in this case) to raise awareness of the epidemic with promotional materials, “and we’re asking people to drop off old or unused parts of prescriptions at county police stations,” McEvoy said, including the Western District in Odenton. The county is also finalizing details on a new county-sponsored treatment center “in Annapolis or South County, which had a pocket of activity,” he said, that should be open “before the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
“We will continue to make opioid addiction treatment a serious budget priority in the upcoming 2016–17 budget,” he said, when it’s presented to the county council on May 22.
Jinlene Chan is health officer with the Anne Arundel County Health Department, which has responded to the public health issue with a new web site, www.denialisdeadly.org, to heighten awareness. “It’s obvious that we have a problem, but on a more subtle level, some people in our community deny it,” she said, “when people they know and love may [be addicted].”
Chan, too, thinks “Progress has been made in the last year,” but acknowledged that the epidemic is raging on. “We’re still seeing people dying and more are going to emergency rooms.”
The most recent news in Anne Arundel County, where 53 people died of heroin-related overdoses in 2014 (the most recent data available), is that Baltimore Washington Medical Center (BWMC), in Glen Burnie, along with the county’s Department of Health, has been awarded a $227,908 federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (through the Maryland Behavioral Health Administration) to treat individuals who are suffering from an opiate overdose.
The grant funding will foster a partnership between BWMC and the county Department of Health, using dedicated team members to manage, treat and support the needs of program participants. The new model of care expects to enroll at least 30 people into treatment during its first year.
“We’ve also launched a program at BWMC to make sure that everyone who walks out of the emergency room leaves with a Narcan kit,” said Chan, pointing out that, “We know that a person who has had one overdose is at a very high risk of a recurrence,” adding that the department is also working on getting a grant that would be used to start similar programs with Anne Arundel Medical Center, in Annapolis.
For now, the plan on all fronts is to keep making the public more aware.
“I believe that our educational campaign is working, including our informational videos on our website [www.hcdrugfree],” said Webb Scornaienchi. “We know that our parents didn’t have to know how to address this situation. But, in today’s world, we do.”
And the public also needs to know that opioid addiction knows no boundaries of race, personal status or wealth; the next victim could be anybody. “Many residents of Howard County enjoy the American Dream: They have two parents, two incomes and the best doctors — then one day, they come home with the bottle of pain pills.
“What parents now have to do,” she said, “is to treat that bottle of pain pills like a loaded gun.”