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Stanly ranks worst in opioid overdoses

The opioid epidemic has gripped Stanly County after data reveals overdoses here rank worse than anywhere in the state, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Although the opioid crisis now has the full attention of federal and state lawmakers, the situation is worsening locally after state health officials reported Stanly County ranks No. 1 in opioid overdoses for June. Meanwhile, health officials are scrambling to understand why there has been a spike in opioid overdoses locally and how to stave off the crisis.

“Rural counties always seem to fare worse than more metropolitan areas due to lack of resources,” said Jennifer Layton, health education specialist at the Stanly County Department of Public Health. “We have had evidence based solutions for years, but have lacked in funding and the necessary staff to implement the strategies.”

State data shows Stanly has the state’s highest rate for all opioid overdoses that result in emergency room visits for June. Stanly also fared tops in overdoses from heroin and synthetic narcotics overdoses that led to emergency room visits.

News of Stanly’s issues with opioid overdoses caught the attention of Frank McNeill, a congressional candidate for District 08. The Democrat shared the information via Facebook.

“This is heartbreaking. According to a report this week produced by the NCDHHS, two counties in the 8th District – Stanly & Cumberland – have the highest rates of opioid overdoses of any county in NC,” McNeill wrote Thursday.

The highest concentration of emergency room visits for opioid overdoses by zip code occurred in Cumberland, Stanly, Burke, Craven, Mecklenburg, Surry and Franklin counties.

Seven months into 2018 there have been 141 overdoses reported. For the entire year of 2017, there were 145 overdoses. In recent months, the spike in overdoses has been significantly worse, according to Chris Howard of the Stanly County Emergency Medical Service (EMS).

Between July 1 and July 20, there were 37 reported overdoses. During the same span last year there were five.

During the second quarter of 2018, there were 70 overdoses, compared to 32 in 2017. That’s more than double, or an 118 percent increase.
An increase, albeit more of a more modest spike, foreshadowed the first quarter of the year. From Jan. 1 through March 30, there were 34 overdoses. Last year’s first quarter yielded 30.
Last week, July 17-22, there were 14 overdoses, an average of two per day. Half of last week’s overdoses were in Albemarle, Howard said.
“We definitely have a problem,” Howard said.
Other counties are trending in the wrong direction with opioid overdoses, too. But in Stanly, the opioid problem starts in the county seat.
At the July 9 Albemarle City Council meeting, Fire Chief Shawn Oke reported 21 calls for overdoses in the city during June. For June 2017, there was only one case in the city of Albemarle.
“Thus far in 2018 we have administered naloxone to 36 patients in the city. The first six months of 2017 saw naloxone administered to 12 patients,” Oke’s report to the city manager stated. “The administration of naloxone is not a true representation of the overdose problem we experienced in June as some of our incidents resulted in the person being deceased on our arrival or being given naloxone prior to our arrival.”
Howard said last year’s dubious distinction with opioids belonged to Cabarrus County, while the year before rested with Rowan County.
Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine, morphine and many others.
Jeff Crisco, winner of the Republican primary for Stanly County sheriff and former narcotics investigator for the sheriff’s office, said the dangerous opioid slide started locally around January.
“We were seeing it then,” Crisco said.
He said the trend also showed opioids tracking from Albemarle to Norwood to Oakboro.
While the rise in overdoses is evident across the county, data suggest the city of Albemarle is shouldering the majority of them.
The number of overdoses in the city are outpacing other parts of the county, just as it did last year.
Much of the city’s problem can be traced to a major drug dealer who resides in Albemarle and supplies most of the county as well as surrounding areas, Crisco said.
Albemarle police Detective Bryan Springer said a key suspect in the drug trade was arrested last month, but posted bond the same day.
He said suspected drug dealers are back in business as soon as they are released on bond.
Drug investigators are now aggressively interviewing overdose victims, trying to learn more about their source, Springer said.
“We’re trying to find out where it’s coming from,” Springer said. “Not everyone wants to talk to us, but some family members are encouraging them to talk. That has helped a lot. We’re trying to get to the root of the problem.”
He also explained the overdoses seem to come in sprees because the opioids are sold in batches. Once a batch, laced with fentanyl, comes in and finds its way on the streets, overdoses tend to follow.
From a more political perspective, McNeill blamed part of the opioid epidemic on excessive campaign contributions by pharmaceutical companies.
“There’s a lot that Congress can do, but they aren’t. Number 1 is to stop taking so much darn money from the drug manufacturers who profit off addiction,” McNeill wrote.
Layton recommended a few practical solutions to staving off opioid addiction.
“We first have to consider our best opportunities for intervention, which includes a number of programmatic options,” she said. “The first being prevention by including resilience skill development in schools.  Second, provide quick follow-up post-overdose reversal to help connect individuals to care. Third, we must build a strong recovery support system within our county. By no means is this a complete list, but it is a fantastic start.”
This year’s spike in opioid overdoses comes after the new STOP Act, which went into effect Jan. 1.
The Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention Act limits doctors to prescribing no more than a five-day supply of opioids during an initial visit to treat a patient’s pain. Following surgeries, no more than a seven-day supply will be allowed. Doctors can prescribe a bigger supply during follow-up visits, and the limit does not apply to cancer patients or those receiving treatment for chronic pain.
Medical providers are also required to submit prescriptions for controlled substances electronically and participate in the NC Controlled Substances Reporting System (NCCSRS), a database system. It allows medical professionals to track who’s getting the drugs so that people addicted to opioid drugs cannot go from one doctor to another to get more, better known as “doctor shopping.”
Stanly’s slide with opioid overdoses also arrives after the opening of Will’s Place, a resource center in Albemarle dedicated to opioid addiction. Will’s Place provides treatment options, education, awareness programs and advocacy for individuals and families impacted by addiction.
In 2015, Project Lazarus was introduced to Stanly County. The Project Lazarus public health model is based on the premises that drug overdose deaths are preventable and that all communities are ultimately responsible for their own health. The model components are: (1) community activation and coalition building, (2) monitoring and epidemiologic surveillance, (3) prevention of overdoses through medical education and other means, (4) use of rescue medication to reverse overdoses by community members and (5) evaluation of project components. The last four steps operate in a cyclical manner, with community advisory boards playing the central role in developing and designing each aspect of the intervention.
The Good Samaritan Naloxone Access Law (2013) allowed medical first responders and law enforcement to be trained to administer this antidote to potential overdose victims.

Contact Ritchie Starnes at 704-754-5076 or ritchie.starnes@stanlynewspress.com.