Community is key to solving opioid issue

With opioid use on the rise across the country, a group of community members is looking at how to address the problem in Barnwell County.

Pam Rush, director of prevention at the Axis 1 Center of Barnwell, was approached earlier this year by several community members who wanted to assist in efforts regarding the opioid abuse/overdose issue. In response, Axis 1 has formed a community workgroup called the Opioid Action Team to assess and identify strategies to address the issue and its impact on Barnwell County.

“We’ve got to get our community aware of what the problem is,” said Rush.

The Problem

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 others.

“These drugs are chemically related and interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and brain,” according to The National Institute on Drug Abuse (www.drugabuse.gov).

While opioid pain relievers are generally safe when taken for a short time and used as prescribed by a doctor, the euphoria they produce along with pain relief can lead to misuse, the website states. This includes taking the drug in larger quantities than prescribed or taking them without a prescription.

A recent survey conducted by the Axis 1 Center showed Barnwell County residents thought opioids are a problem. They also believed heroin and fentanyl are easy to get, said Rush.

“Regular use—even as prescribed by a doctor—can lead to dependence and, when misused, opioid pain relievers can lead to overdose incidents and deaths,” states the government website. Rush said some people are so dependent they will chew on used fentanyl pain patches from relatives.

Barnwell County had 44 overdose calls in 2016 while there have been 36 so far this year, said Rush of the latest statistics provided by law enforcement. Some of the overdose victims were saved by EMS who administered the drug Narcan, which reverses the effects of opioids.

Unfortunately, many people die from opioid-related overdoses each year. Statistics have been on the rise in recent years.

According to statewide data provided by Axis 1, opioid-related overdoses caused 459 deaths in 2014 and 594 in 2015. In 2016, deaths from heroin and opioid overdoses outnumbered homicides.

Barnwell County’s first fatal overdose was in December 2015 due to a combination of heroin and fentanyl. There was also one death in 2016; however, two other deaths were ruled accidents but were related to opioid use, Rush said. So far in 2017, there have been three deaths in Barnwell County due to opioid overdoses. Rush said there could be more opioid-related overdose deaths, but the cause of death was not properly attributed to opioids.

Opioids are being used predominately by white males, who make up 58 percent of users. The rest include 35 percent white females, 4 percent black males and 3 percent black females.

“Opioid addiction is a public health menace to South Carolina. We cannot let history record that we stood by while this epidemic rages,” said S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson.

The Solution

The Barnwell County group has formed at a time when the state is also trying to address the issue of prescription opioids and heroin.

Sponsored by the S.C. Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, the S.C. Governor’s Opioid Summit was held Sept. 6-7 in Columbia. It brought together healthcare professionals, state and local agencies, concerned citizens, and law enforcement.

“This tragic epidemic has already torn apart too many families, and I’m confident that South Carolina will come together, as it always has, to provide the support necessary to save lives. It is more critical than ever that we bring together every group that has a stake in the opioid crisis to combat what we now know is one of the most deadly health issues our state and country have faced in a generation,” said S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster.

The Barnwell County group has a similar makeup of law enforcement officers, educators, healthcare workers, media and members of the faith community. They have met twice so far – Sept. 8 and Oct. 13.

One contributing factor the group has talked about is how opioids are heavily prescribed by doctors.

Nearly five million opioid prescriptions were dispensed in 2016 in South Carolina, a state that only has a population of 4,961,119.

Attorney General Wilson filed a historic lawsuit in August against Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin and other opioid drugs. The suit alleges the company “unfairly and deceptively marketed opioids, which helped fuel South Carolina’s opioid epidemic,” according to a press release from Wilson’s office.

“The opioid epidemic involves everyone from patients to doctors to pharmaceutical companies to pharmacies and insurance companies,” Wilson said. “It’s important for all of them to take whatever steps possible to reduce opioid abuse, addiction, and deaths.”

He has joined with a bipartisan group of attorneys general from across the country in letters to 15 healthcare companies that provide pharmacy benefit management services, encouraging the companies to implement programs to mitigate prescription opioid abuse, according to a release. They also sent a letter to the president and CEO of CVS Health Corporation applauding the company’s recent program that automatically enrolled all commercial, health plan, employer and Medicaid clients in an opioid abuse mitigation program.

Rush said the Barnwell County group is trying to reach out to local healthcare providers to spread awareness and get them involved.

While the S.C. Department of Education has updated health standards taught in public schools to include opioids, local educators attending the Oct. 13 meeting at the Axis 1 Center say they need more training on the issue. They specifically need help identifying signs that students might need assistance.

Getting unused, unwanted and outdated prescription pills out of homes is another initiative the group is promoting. That’s the purpose of National Prescription Drug Take Back Day on Saturday, Oct. 28. Prescription drop boxes will be set up at CVS in Barnwell and Blackville Town Hall from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Liquids and syringes are not accepted.

Even after the official day, drop boxes are available at the Barnwell County Sheriff’s Office and Blackville Town Hall where residents can leave pills. A drop box will soon be installed at the Williston Police Department.

Other resources include the S.C. Prescription Drug Monitoring Program to monitor who writes opioid prescriptions, the LEON Project to train EMS and first responders through DHEC, and Joint Protocol. The latter allows anyone to go to a pharmacy in the state and say they or a family member are at risk of opioid overdose, and the pharmacy can give them Narcan without a prescription.

The Axis 1 Center on Jackson Street in Barnwell is a great place for people who need treatment. Their trained personnel provide services in the areas of education, prevention, intervention and treatment to citizens of Barnwell County.

There are two support groups in Barnwell that have people with a variety of addictions, not just drugs. Celebrate Recovery is a 12-step program based on Christian principles that meets at Hagood Avenue Baptist Church. Step studies (small groups) are done on Mondays from 6:30 to 8 p.m. They also meet on Thursdays with supper from 6 to 6:45 p.m., large group session from 7 to 8 p.m., and open share sessions from 8 to 9 p.m. Time for Recovery meets at Gateway Church on Marlboro Avenue on Sundays at 4:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at noon.

Anyone wishing to join the Opioid Action Team and help find local solutions can contact Rush at (803) 541-1245 or prush@axis1.org.