By Rick Wolcott*
The Addiction Policy Forum reports that 144 people died in the United States every day in 2016 from a drug overdose.
“This is an epidemic unlike any other,” said Elaine Georgas, executive director of the Alcohol and Drug Addictions Services (ADAS) Board of Lorain County. “If more than 52,000 Americans died last year from any other illness or disease, communities would be outraged. We have to change the conversation and understand what addiction is and how it impacts individuals, families, and communities.”
Georgas moderated a town hall meeting at Lorain Faith UMC (Firelands District) to address the opiate and heroin epidemic that has gripped Lorain County. The evening, co-sponsored by the ADAS Board, included four panelists and a resource fair that featured nine agencies.
“As a church in Lorain, we care very deeply about this city and we feel we can no longer be silent while families are being torn apart by heroin,” said Pastor Karen Hollingsworth. “We believe that every life has value. We believe that every life is worth saving and we are speaking up to let people know that they are not alone, that there is help and there is hope.”
“I came here tonight because of the hurt that is in our city because of drug addiction,” said Kyriece Brooks. “I was very excited to see that this town hall meeting was taking place because you don’t normally see too many churches opening their doors to host a platform such as this.”
Lorain County Coroner Dr. Stephen Evans told the 82 people in attendance that the introduction of heroin caused opioid deaths in the county to jump from 20, in both 2010 and 2011, to 60 in 2012.
“For the first time, deaths were across the entire spectrum of inner city, suburban, farm country, and they were 50-50 between male and female. Prior to that time people dying from drug overdoses were predominantly male,” he said. “The youngest overdose death I’ve had was a 2 year-old who got ahold of a family member’s drugs. The oldest was a 75 year-old man who was sharing a hit of heroin with his grandson.”
“This drug epidemic does not discriminate, it impacts everyone,” said Narcotic Units Detective Chris Colon of the Lorain police department.
“For every person who dies there are 130 people who are addicted and there are more than 800 people using drugs inappropriately,” said Evans. “In Lorain County, 1 out of 6 people is using drugs inappropriately.”
Evans told the crowd that opiate addiction is not a new problem. “Three thousand years before Christ people were using opium,” he said.
What is new is how people are getting the drug.
“Eighty percent of our children start their drug habits from old prescription drugs that are in the home medicine cabinet. That makes us as parents our child’s first drug supplier,” he said. “This is not a criminal problem. This is a medical problem.”
He encouraged those in the crowd to clean out their medicine cabinets and take old and unused pills to any police or fire department, which will accept them with no questions asked.
All of the panelists highlighted the partnerships that exist in Lorain County with police departments, fire departments, EMS and politicians working together to end the opiate epidemic that has placed the county in the national spotlight.
In 2014 Senator Gayle Manning (R) of Ohio Senate District 13 helped pass legislation that made Lorain County a case study for the Deaths Avoided With Narcan (DAWN) program, which enabled emergency personnel to administer the FDA-approved nasal spray Narcan to those suffering from a drug overdose.
Evans reported that police officers in the county have saved more than 300 people by administering Narcan. Because of the program’s success, the State of Ohio made it possible for all police officers to carry the life-saving drug, and departments from across the country and around the world have asked that Lorain’s policies and procedures for the program be shared with them.
Thirteen people were trained on the administration of Narcan during the resource fair at Lorain Faith UMC.
“The DAWN program stabilized the death rate in Lorain County from drug overdose deaths, keeping deaths in the 60s in 2014 and 2015,” Evans said. “It started a paradigm shift. Police realized the benefit of saving lives and people were less hesitant to call in drug activity because they knew that police may be able to revive someone who was overdosing.”
But the introduction of fentanyl into the county caused drug overdose deaths to double in 2016 and Evans says that, “2017 is on pace to have more overdose deaths than last year.”
He explained that fentanyl is 50- to 100-times more powerful than morphine and heroin, and because it is a synthetic opium it that can be manufactured in a home lab without needing the opium plant.
“Users don’t know that dealers are mixing fentanyl into the heroin that they buy,” Evans said. “So they take the same dose of heroin that they took before but because of the fentanyl that is in it the effect is much greater and the body can’t take it.”
Kim Mason has been with Lifecare Ambulance Services since 2005. “When I started we hardly ever received calls for an overdose but in the past three years we have been overwhelmed by them.”
“We’ve lost the war on drugs,” Evans said. “We need to change our approach and start funding prevention and treatment programs because that is the only way we are going to get out of this.”
One such agency in Lorain County is The LCADA Way, which cares for individuals and families struggling with drug and alcohol addiction by focusing on Leadership, Compassion, Awareness, Dedication, and Advocacy.
CEO Thomas Stuber said, “Drugs are more powerful and more addictive than any I can remember in my 37 years of trying to work myself out of a job in this field. In my first year as CEO here in 1999 we had four people seek help for opiate addiction. Now it’s four people per day.”
Charlene Dellipoala is part of the team at the Lorain County Community College CARE (Caring Advocates for Recovery Education) Center, a recovery/addiction center that works with students, faculty, and staff who have addiction issues.
“When I started out I was working with students who had issues with alcohol or marijuana but now I see so many who are addicted to harder drugs,” she said. “It breaks your heart when you think of young people who are just starting out on college careers having something like that impact them.”
“Addiction is a scary problem because it doesn’t matter what race you are, what class you are, or what gender you are,” Mason said. “It impacts not only the addict but also that person’s family, friends, and co-workers.”
“After the meeting I spoke to a man in fellowship hall who said, ‘When you help me, you help the community.’” Hollingsworth said. “His words have stayed on my heart. We often think that if we only help one person we are not making much of a difference. His statement sheds a whole new light on the difference helping one person can make and how it ripples into the community.”
*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.