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Opioid overdoses caused 53 local deaths in the last six years, records show

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MARTINSVILLE — Over a six year period, 44 people in Henry County died from opioid overdoses. Of those deaths, which happened from 2011 to 2016, 38 were from prescription opioid overdoses and six from fentanyl and/or heroin overdoses, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health.

From 2011 through 2016, Martinsville had five deaths from prescription opioid overdoses and four deaths caused by fentanyl or heroin overdoses. That totals 53 deaths from opioid overdoses for Henry County and Martinsville for those years listed.

The U.S. Surgeon General’s Office classifies opioids as a class of drugs that include medications, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and methadone, which are commonly prescribed to treat pain, as well as illegal drugs, such as heroin.

Local officials said they hoped the numbers helped people recognize that this area has a serious problem.

“Martinsville and Henry County have a significant issue with opioids as compared to the state overall,” said Bonnie Favero, prevention director for Piedmont Community Services. “This crisis affects everyone because of the loss of life and the unintended consequences of illicit opioid use, such as neonatal abstinence syndrome and hepatitis C rates rising.”

She pointed to the fact that in most cases, Martinsville and Henry County had a higher death rate over the six year period than Virginia as a whole, when it comes to opioid overdoses.

Henry County had seven prescription opioid overdose deaths in 2011; eight each in 2012, 2013 and 2014; three in 2015; and four in 2016, according to Virginia Department of Health data. Henry County’s mortality rate per 100,000 population from prescription opioid overdose deaths was nearly three times Virginia’s rate in 2012; was more than twice Virginia’s rate in 2011, 2013 and 2014; and exceeded Virginia’s rate in 2015 and 2016. Henry County’s highest mortality rate during those years was 15.4 per 100,000 population (compared with 6.0 per 100,000 for Virginia) in 2014.

Martinsville had three prescription opioid overdose deaths in 2013, one each in 2012 and 2014, and none in 2011. Martinsville’s mortality rate per 100,000 population from prescription opioid overdose deaths exceeded Virginia’s rate three of the four years. Martinsville’s highest mortality rate those years was 21.8 deaths per 100,000 in 2013, nearly four times Virginia’s rate of 5.5 per 100,000.

These statistics aren’t from random drugs. The majority of the incidents involved prescription drugs, picked up originally at local pharmacies.

“We need to realize that everyone is responsible if we are not taking prescription drug use seriously,” Favero said. “Opioids include pain relievers, heroin, and heroin synthetics. When someone misuses opiates, they can become addicted in merely three days, which sets them up for using heroin and synthetic drugs that may be lethal the first time used.”

She stressed the importance of understanding these drugs and following three rules. First, take medications appropriately as directed by a physician and question if you need the type of drug or the amount prescribed. Second, never share a prescription drug with someone else. That’s illegal and can lead to serious complications. Third, properly dispose of unused prescriptions at one of the three local permanent take-back boxes (at the Henry County Jail, Martinsville Police Department and Starling Avenue Pharmacy in Martinsville) or at the Drug Take Back Day on April 28 at the Martinsville Fire Department on Church Street.

“If you know someone who is already addicted, try to get them help by taking them for substance use treatment and learn how to use Narcan or naloxone and carry it with you so you can bring them back to life in the case of a drug overdose,” Favero said. (Piedmont Community Services provides free training every month on how to use naloxone.)

Naloxone, also known by the brand-name Narcan, is a life-saving medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams recently released an advisory urging more Americans to carry naloxone.

Issues continue to arise

The problem is one that’s continued to rise up in 2018. Dr. Kerry Gateley, interim director of the West Piedmont Health District and director of the Central Virginia Health District, said that from October 2017 through February 2018, Henry County/Martinsville (combined for purposes of calculating rates) “has shown extraordinarily high and consistent rates” of emergency department visits for opioid overdoses.

Virginia Department of Health data show Henry County/Martinsville had the third highest rate per 100,000 population of unintentional overdose by opioid or unspecified substance among Virginia residents each month from October 2017 through January 2018 among localities in Virginia, and the highest rate in Virginia in February 2018.

Henry County/Martinsville’s rate was 23.1 per 100,000 population in October 2017 (compared with 7.8 for Virginia), 21.6 per 100,000 in November 2017 (compared with 8.4 for Virginia), 27.7 per 100,000 in December 2017 (compared with 7.5 for Virginia), 23.1 per 100,000 in January 2018 (compared with 7.1 for Virginia) and 37.0 per 100,000 in February 2018 (compared with 7.0 for Virginia).

Gateley noted that Patrick County was one of the other localities whose rate increased in February 2018. According to Virginia Department of Health data, Patrick County had the second highest rate (27.9 per 100,000) among Virginia’s localities in February 2018.

“Lynchburg is consistent but not particularly high in comparison,” he said.

According to Gateley and Virginia Department of Health data, the West Piedmont Health District had the second highest rate per 100,000 population of emergency department visits for unintentional overdose by opioid or unspecified substance among health districts in Virginia for the five-month average (from October 2017 through February 2018).. The West Piedmont Health District (comprised of Henry, Patrick and Franklin counties and the city of Martinsville) had a rate of 17.6 per 100,000 population, second only to Roanoke (19.9 per 100,000). Virginia’s five-month average was 7.6 per 100,000.

Looking at a year’s data (from March 2017 through February 2018), the rates of emergency department visits for unintentional overdose by opioid or unspecified substance (excluding heroin) generally were higher than the Virginia average for the central, southwestern and northwestern regions of the commonwealth and lower than average for the northern and eastern regions, according to Gateley and Virginia Department of Health data.

“Of course, a major flaw with this data is the fact (as attested by EMS locally) that often opioid misusers who have overdosed do not want and refuse EMS transport to the ED (emergency department),” Gateley said. “They wouldn’t show up in ED visit data.”

Drug use tied to unemployment, poverty

According to information compiled by Nancy Bell, population health manager for the West Piedmont Health District, opioid abuse rates tend to be higher in areas of high unemployment, high poverty and in rural areas.

“Opioid overdose rates can be attributed to a number of factors,” Bell said.

Those include physicians who overprescribe opiates, a bad batch of heroin – or one in which high potency additives are found, a heroin dose that is unusually potent, or a user who has lost the ability to self-regulate intake of opiates.

“We have been working very hard to combat this epidemic in the WPHD (West Piedmont Health District), including some measures that are not being implemented elsewhere in the Commonwealth,” Bell said.

Those measures include launching an Opioids Task Force in 2016. The group includes members of the West Piedmont Health District, Drug Free Martinsville-Henry County, Piedmont Community Services and members of the faith community.

“The Martinsville Area Community Foundation provided funding to develop church bulletin inserts about the crisis of opioid use in the community and our response to it. These have been widely distributed, and a second printing is being made,” Bell said.

WPHD, Drug Free MHC and the Martinsville Police Department conducted a door-to-door campaign to educate residents on the epidemic and provide drug disposal bags and other educational materials.

A committee of Drug Free MHC is working to determine if a drug court is a viable option for Henry County/Martinsville. An informational brochure for Virginia veterinarians regarding potential misuse of opioid medications by pet owners was developed, printed and distributed.

Bell also mentioned recent indictments related to drug distribution in Henry County and Martinsville.

“These indictments represent months of work by law enforcement agencies in Henry County and Martinsville whose primary focus has been eliminating the supply of illegal drugs in the community,” Bell said.

Paul Collins reports for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at paul.collins@martinsvillebulletin.com

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