Despite a role as one of the nation’s most heavily hit localities in the ongoing opioid crisis, Martinsville might be on the rebound, with area prescription rates for the painkiller dropping in recent years.
“Opioid prescription rates in Martinsville and Henry County have been declining consistently from 2012 to 2016,” wrote Carlin Rafie, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech’s Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise and one of the principal investigators of a two-year research project to help address the drug crisis in Martinsville.
In the preceding years, from 2006 to 2012, Martinsville had the second-highest per capita rate in the United States for the number of prescription pain pills distributed. During those years, 242 pills per person were distributed in the city, according to information in a database maintained by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. The information was made public last week.
Norton, another Virginia city, is the only other locality in the nation that had a higher rate, with 300 pills distributed per person.
But for Martinsville, the prescription trend changed course beginning in 2012, wrote Rafie.
“In Martinsville it went from 548 prescriptions/100 residents in 2012, to 400 prescriptions/100 residents in 2016,” Rafie wrote in an email. “Similarly, in Henry County they declined from 106.9 to 73.4 prescriptions/100 residents.”
Rafie referenced data on the Virginia Department of Health’s online Opioid Addiction Indicator Dashboard and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s opioid prescribing maps as a way to follow trends in opioid prescriptions, overdose deaths, emergency department visits and use of the anti-overdose medication Narcan.
According to data Rafie provided, Henry County’s prescription opioid overdose death rate declined from 15.1 per 100,000 population in 2012 to 9.7 in 2017, while the death rate from fentanyl and/or heroin overdose rate rose from 1.9 per 100,000 in 2012 to 9.7 in 2017.
Martinsville’s prescription opioid overdose death rate increased slightly from 7.3 per 100,000 population in 2012 to 7.4 in 2017. Martinsville’s death rate from fentanyl and/or heroin overdose increased from zero per 100,000 population in 2012 to 7.4 in 2017.
Rafie said those statistics may indicate that some people switched from prescription opioids to fentanyl and/or heroin.
She also pointed up that Narcan administrations have gone up substantially.
She said a lot is happening in the United States, Virginia and Martinsville-Henry County to address the opioid crisis.
“Most importantly, a multi-level approach that considers prevention through long-term recovery has typified efforts. The Drug Free Martinsville/Henry County Coalition has the key stakeholders in the community working together to address the issue, as does the Opioid Task Force,” Rafie wrote.
In the two-year, Virginia Tech-led research project, the Engaging Martinsville research team “is working in concert with these groups to develop multi-level stakeholder-driven action plans to impact the opioid addiction indicators and prevent opioid addiction for a healthier community,” Rafie wrote.
Individuals and organizations that have participated in the project have identified areas where progress is being made to address the opioid issue, including the impact new guidelines for opioid prescribers have had on prescription rates, increased distribution of Narcan to help prevent opioid overdose deaths, and increased public awareness of the issue in the community.
“Of course, they also identified things that remain to be done, like addressing the legitimate need for chronic pain management, early access to treatment for substance misuse, a need for in-patient treatment facilities, de-stigmatization of opioid use disorder, among others,” she wrote.
Nancy Bell, population health manager for the West Piedmont Health District, weighed in on why she thinks Martinsville had the second-highest per capita rate in the United States.
“Having worked on this issue for the past three years, and based on the input from multiple partners, I believe that a number of factors contribute to Martinsville’s excessively high rate,” Bell wrote in an email. “These include lack of economic opportunities, economic trends and the previous availability of opioid medications. This seems to be true in communities like ours where factors affecting low-income individuals appear to be severe.”
When asked what’s being done locally to address the opioid crisis, Bell said: “Nonprofits, churches, schools, health providers, law enforcement, and the treatment community have come together in many ways to address this issue. Drug Free MHC is a 90-min monthly meeting where people in recovery share a perspective that helps address issues, and every sector of the community is around the table. A number of community initiatives have come from this group.”
She also mentioned the Virginia Tech-led research project, and REVIVE training being offered around the community so people can spot overdose and provide life-saving Narcan. She also said treatment centers have opened, and partners are working together to educate the public about the dangers of opioid use.
A report by the Virginia Department of Health’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner released earlier this year showed that 24 people in Henry County and 10 in Martinsville died from illicit and prescription opioid overdoses between 2016 and 2018.
Paul Collins is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. Contact him at 276-638-8801, ext. 236.