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‘We’ve got to keep people alive’: Forum highlights problems, explores solutions to opioid epidemic

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More than 100 leaders from an array of disciplines united Thursday in effort to understand the opioid crisis here and made it a goal to combat the problem by working together.

Wilson County commissioners hosted an Opioid Crisis Forum aimed at not only educating the public but to review current information and tools to help solve the problem.

While many initiatives are underway here in prevention, intervention and recovery, officials wanted attendees to share their thoughts and ideas for next steps as a community.

Speakers also quizzed the audience in an interactive polling session via cellphones to see how much Wilson residents knew about the opioid epidemic.

“It’s an insidious addiction and it can sneak up on people so fast,” said Patrice Roesler of the University of North Carolina School of Government, who moderated the program held at the Surge Center. “It takes a group like this to cross all boundaries.”

Commissioners Chairman Rob Boyette encouraged attendees to get involved and bring to the table other areas Wilson can work on when it comes to new initiatives.

He said the success Wilson County has had so far is a result of agencies and organizations working together. And officials hope to continue that momentum.

‘HOW WE CHANGE A COMMUNITY’

Chase Holleman, recovery advocate and substance use social worker, said most people don’t talk about their recovery. He said it’s vital to speak up and make a difference to remove the stigma.

Holleman, who has been in recovery since 2013, said before he arrived at this point in his life, he tried treatment several times.

“We’ve got to keep people alive,” he said.

Holleman said he didn’t know people could get well when he was doing heroin every day. He said it’s important for people to share their recovery stories so that others know addiction can be overcome.

“This is the beginning of how we change a community,” he said regarding Thursday’s forum.

NUMBERS CLIMB

Mary Beth Cox, substance use epidemiologist with the N.C. Division of Public Health’s Injury and Violence Prevention Branch, shared current data regarding the crisis at the local and state levels. In 2016, nearly five North Carolinians died each day from unintentional medication or drug overdose. She said four out of five of those deaths resulted from opioids.

The rate of outpatient pills dispensed in Wilson County in 2016 came in at 65.2 pills per one resident compared to 66.5 pills, the statewide rate for the same time period.

Heroin and other synthetic narcotics were involved in more than 60 percent of unintentional opioid deaths in 2016. She said preliminary state data shows that the same figure jumped to more than 80 percent in 2017.

Cox discussed the state’s action plan regarding the opioid epidemic and highlighted the importance of syringe exchange programs in North Carolina. There are 27 active exchange programs across the state covering 32 counties. Wilson launched its syringe exchange program in October.

The heroin epidemic is causing a spike in hepatitis C cases throughout the country and in North Carolina. As officials here combat the crisis, the syringe exchange program here is an opportunity to avoid another epidemic.

Heroin users often share needles, exposing themselves and others to health risks including hepatitis C, a bloodborne virus. It’s not curable but there is treatment for it. But if individuals don’t know they have it and it’s not treated, it can cause cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer and eventually lead to death, according to health officials.

From 2007 to 2016, there was a 900 percent increase in acute hepatitis C cases reported to the state, according to state figures.

“That number continues to climb,” Cox said.

‘IT AFFECTS US ALL’

A panel discussion included discussions of the signs and symptoms of an overdose, what the sheriff’s office continues to do in combating the opioid problem as well as how the faith community can get more involved. Behavioral health plays a key role in substance use disorders as well.

The panel included Wilson County Emergency Medical Services Director Michael Cobb, Wilson County Sheriff Calvin Woodard, Farmington Heights Church youth pastor Steve Blower and Wilson Behavioral Health Director Tracy Dickerson-Taylor.

“We all have a part in this,” Dickerson-Taylor said. “It affects us all.”

The forum was made possible by a variety of stakeholders, including Eastpointe, which awarded a grant to fund the program. Partners include Wilson County Department of Social Services, the Recovery Concepts Community Center or RC3, the Wilson County Substance Prevention Coalition and others.

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