Drugs in Virginia: Opioid Addiction Part 2: What We Can Do
In part two of our two-part series, 'Drugs in Virginia: Opioid Addiction,’ NBC29’s Nora Neus takes a look at solutions to the opioid addiction crisis in Virginia.
ALBEMARLE COUNTY, Va. (WVIR) - New data from the Centers for Disease Control reveals there were nearly 13,000 heroin-related deaths in the United States in 2015, slightly surpassing the number of gun homicides. Overall, deaths from all opioids, including prescription painkillers, topped 30,000 for the first time in recent history.
In part two of our two-part series, 'Drugs in Virginia: Opioid Addiction,’ NBC29’s Nora Neus takes a look at solutions to the opioid addiction crisis in Virginia. Click here for part one of our Drugs in Virginia: Opioid Addiction series.
Opioid addiction was declared a statewide public health emergency in November 2016. Experts say there are things that can be done to help stop this epidemic, but it falls on everyone's shoulders.
“In this region, this is an epidemic. This is the real deal,” said Tom Joyce of the Thomas Jefferson Emergency Medical Services Council.
Joyce has spent 30 years as a first responder seeing the human cost of the opioid crisis and has organized programs in schools to educate about the dangers of opioid, heroin, and other drug use.
The number of people addicted to opioids across the country and especially in Virginia is growing exponentially, and so is the number of prescriptions available. The Department of Health and Human Services says, in 2015, more than 65,000 opioid prescriptions were dispensed on an average day across the country.
The crisis is spreading, but there are solutions out there. Policymakers are offering up solutions in the medical field, the community, and law enforcement.
First, healthcare providers can reduce legal opioid availability.
“A lot of these people who end up having a heroin problem, or an opiate pill addiction, started off with completely legitimate use of that medicine,” Joyce stated.
The University of Virginia Medical Center is trying to find new ways to treat pain without opioids. Bethany Sarosiek is the development coordinator for the Enhanced Recovery After Surgery program.
“By using a combination of pain management alternatives…we can do just as good, if not even a better job of managing a patient's pain, without causing a lot of the post-operative addiction problems that opioids do,” she stated.
Even when opioids are necessary for particularly invasive surgery, Sarosiek says doctors and nurses should talk with patients about how easy it is to become addicted. “And that conversation doesn't happen nearly as often as I think it should,” she said.
Part of the solution lies in reducing the number of legal opioids in circulation, with the proper disposal of unused medications. Patients sometimes don't finish the full course of opioids and end up with extra pills lying around.
Kelly Sharpes is an addiction counselor at the Valley Community Services Board. He says patients tell him how easy it is to find and steal opioids.
“Everyone's purse, everyone's medicine cabinet has some opiates in it, very often, and so they're readily available and easy to get,” he said. “When I hear somebody pick up a purse and it has that characteristic shake, there's pills in there, and I know it.”
Officials suggest taking just five or 10 minutes before bed to clean out your medicine cabinet and junk drawer - the one you're not quite sure what's inside. If you find any leftover medication, turn it into local law enforcement.
People can take advantage of opioid disposal solutions in central Virginia. Many police departments have drop boxes where you can dispose of extra medications. Other localities distribute drug disposal kits that you can use at home (list below). Contact your local police or sheriff’s department for details.
The third solution comes from law enforcement, with a focus on treatment, not just punishment.
Waynesboro Police Captain Kelly Walker says law enforcement has to find new solutions to deal with a new kind of drug crisis. “We'll never arrest our way out of this problem,” he said.
When someone is arrested on a drug charge, Walker says they need to enter addiction treatment as soon as possible. “If we wait until trial and then hope to get someone into treatment - at that point - I think you're missing a golden opportunity.”
But Walker says communities need more than just policy ideas. “Removing the stigma that's associated with addiction, letting people know that they can seek treatment, there are resources available, they just have to want to go do it.”