Substance use, obesity, tobacco remain high in community health report

As part of the 2021 Community Health Assessment Report, 1,015 Stanly County residents participated in a survey to identify the biggest health and community issues across the county.

Debbie Bennett, public health educator with the county health department, presented some of the key findings to the Albemarle City Council.

Substance use disorder/overdose was was listed as the top health issue by 65 percent of survey participants, followed by obesity/overweight (47 percent) and tobacco use (44 percent). These were also the top three health issues among respondents in 2018, except tobacco was No. 2 and obesity was No.3.

According to the report, emergency medical services responded to 102 unknown opioid overdoses in Stanly County in 2021, followed by 90 heron overdoses, 86 unspecified/unknown overdoses and 82 incidents involving alcohol intoxication.

From 2015-2019, Stanly County had a higher rate of unintentional opioid overdose deaths (21.4/100,000 population) and unintentional medication/drug overdose deaths (27/100,000) than North Carolina (15.3/100,000 and 18.5/100,000, respectively).

Project Lazarus, a group comprised of public health, health care, law enforcement and mental health personnel as well as concerned citizens, was created several years ago to help combat drug abuse. The group’s purpose is to consolidate the county’s response to this public health crisis.

There are several other key groups working to curtail the overdose issue including the Community Paramedic Program, which was created a few years ago and responds primarily to opioid overdose calls, and the recovery resource center Will’s Place, which continues to help individuals struggling with addiction.

When comparing the first 10 months of 2020 to 2021, there was a 15 percent decrease in the number of overdoses in Stanly County, according to the report. During the same time, North Carolina experienced a 5 percent increase in overdoses.

“This county is really making some headway on substance issues,” Bennett said. “There are less people now being sent to the emergency department…You’ve got folks that are dealing with treatment, folks that are dealing with prevention, you’ve got folks that are dealing with harm reduction.

“This county is really going after this problem and it’s turning it around,” she added.

Several health issues increased in importance for the 2021 assessment compared with the one in 2018, including inactivity/lack of physical activity (ranked No. 5, up from No. 9), heart disease (ranked No, 7, up from No. 10) and infectious disease, including the flu and COVID-19 (ranked No. 9 up from No. 17). Several of these are possibly higher because the survey was taken in the first months of 2021, when the pandemic was at its peak and vaccines were still not widely available.

Even though heart disease and cancer are still the two leading causes of death in Stanly County, they appear to be trending downward, according to the data from 2006 through 2019.

What is worrisome is that Alzheimer’s Disease, which was the sixth leading cause of death per the 2018 report, is now the third leading cause of death in the county. Additionally, all other unintentional injuries (which includes drownings, burning, poisonings, overdoses, falls) rose from the seventh leading cause of death to fourth.

The top three community issues seen as major problems have changed compared with three years ago. While unemployment/underemployment is still seen as the biggest issue, garnering 34 percent of responses, poverty supplanted inadequate health insurance as the second most important issue, receiving 32 percent of responses. For the 2018 report, poverty was the No. 4 issue.

Crime also seems to have become a more prominent issue as it rose two spots to the No. 4 issue while bullying, which was listed as the third biggest issue in 2018, fell all the way to No. 11.

A majority of respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that there were enough jobs and job opportunities to move up in Stanly.

A clear majority of respondents — grouped by age, and race, among others — agreed the county was a safe place to live, and it was a good place to grow older, raise children and have access to health care.

According to Stanly County life expectancy data from 2017-2019, the overall life expectancy is about 76 years, with males living to about 73 and females about 78 — all slightly lower than the life expectancy of North Carolina residents. The life expectancy of African Americans in Stanly County (76) is about two points higher than Africans Americans across the state (74).

The respondents were also asked about barriers to receiving health and human services and the biggest issue was deductibles/co-payments being too high, followed by lack of health insurance. The biggest issue in 2018, doctors’ offices not accepting insurance or Medicaid, was ranked No. 3.

The Health Department will soon put together Community Health Improvement Plans and work with members of the community to help address the top three health issues cited by the respondents.

The 2022 assessment spans more than 200 pages and includes information from focus groups, reports and an online countywide survey available to residents from Jan. 14 through Feb. 14 of last year. The health assessments are conducted triennially by the Stanly County Health Department and Atrium Health Stanly. The data from the report is broken down into many categories including age, marital status, race, educational status and zip code.