PG Hosts Forum To Address Opioid Crisis
By LYNDON GERMAN
Nov 30, 2017, 10:37
(From right to left) Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Timothy Dustin, District 19 Program Manager Candace Roney, Captain Jason Koren from Prince George EMS and Father Christopher Hess from the Church of the Sacred Heart face residents from Prince George as they describe battling the opioid crisis.
Localities across the United States are battling against the same foe – addiction. As prescription opioid use increased overtime so did illegal narcotic opioids and those chemically laced drugs are causing overdoses, fatalities and heartache across the nation. Prince George is not an exception to that fact but the residents of Prince George are ready to face the challenge.
Prince George’s Local Emergency Planning Committee hosted a community forum at the Sacred Heart Church on Nov. 16. Representatives from the medical field, emergency response crew and the courts took questions from the community at large on the opioid crisis.
Representing the medical field was Candace Roney program manager of District 19. District 19’s mission is to improve the lives of individuals struggling with mental disabilities and substance abuse. They serve the localities of Colonial Heights Dinwiddie, Emporia, Greensville, Hopewell Petersburg, Surry, Sussex and Prince George.
Roney stressed the importance of making sure the people facing substance abuse are treated like anyone else with a disease. She wanted to spread awareness to the crowd of residents that addiction is not to be swept under the rug as a moral crisis but a medical one.
“As we talk about the opioid epidemic, please do not forget that addiction is addiction and it does not matter what you’re addicted to,” Roney explained.
Just that Memorial Day weekend Roney claims over 27 visits to the emergency room at Southside Regional or John Randolph were opioid related. Also 4 fatalities occurred that day. Even that day Prince George County Police reported an opioid related overdose.
“That’s alarming to me,” she continued. “Somewhere we have a disconnect, we have a gap we need to fill and that’s just what we can track. We are suspecting that there were many more overdoes but due to the dispensing of Narcan (a prescription medicine that reverses or blocks the effect of an overdoes) they received the injection but didn’t come to the hospital.”
Roney points out that though District 19 has a great relationship with law enforcement agencies it’s hard rid the problem in its entirety. The best thing for the community to be prepared, Roney claims.
“We want to be able to educate the community so they can have an educated conversation with their doctors. At some level all of us are at a point where we’re using local solutions to try and address the problem.”
Education is Roney’s mission. To those who don’t believe in the power of addiction, as if it’s a run-of-the-mill problem or choice Roney stands firm on her beliefs saying it’s not a choice it’s a disease.
“It is a disease. It changes the structure of the brain. We can look at a brain scan and look at the damage alcoholism causes which is quite different what heroin can do which is quite different from what cocaine can do. We can see the damage we can see your brain actually being eaten way do to drugs which results to symptoms whether its loss of memory whether its shakes or withdrawal symptoms – we can see that.”
For Roney part of the problem with treating addiction and educating the public is that people believe addiction is a moral sin. Something you did wrong that caused you to become addicted.
“So here what I ask you to do – look at through the eyes of a child addicted to crack cocaine. That child’s chemical structure has altered before they got started. Given the environment, given the exposure that child is now at risk just like diabetes and hyper tensions. There’s no difference. People continue to hide this disease and hiding the disease will kill us. People don’t get treatment because they feel like they have failed.”
Roney deals with treating addiction while forum guest Captain Jason Koren from Prince George Fire and EMS faces the opioid crisis first hand.
“If I could open my eyes and you could the things that I’ve seen, the heartbreak that I see from parents, from loved ones from 10-year-old little girls that have told me they’ve seen their mother overdose three or four times – those are the pains that I deal with and I live with every day,” Koren told residents.
Koren estimates that Prince George County deals with opioid or heroin related incidents five to six times a month. The Center for Disease Control Prevention (CDC) claims from 2014 to 2015, heroin overdose death rates increased by 20.6%, with nearly 13,000 people dying in 2015.
Koren went on to claim that pill addiction is nowhere near as big as an issue as heroin use. Often these drugs are laced with other substances like fentanyl which can lead to harsher addictions and more fatalities. What’s worse is the people who have these addictions hide it from their loved ones and community. Their denial makes it harder to treat the disease.
After Koren run across these substance abuse victims they’re met in the courts by people like Timothy Dustin assistant to the Prince George Commonwealth Attorney. Dustin came to Virginia byway of the state of Washington where meth was the drug that plagued his community. Though the plights may be similar the scale is much different.
“Meth is dwarfed by this issue that we have in front of us,” Dustin said. “To come 3000 miles to a place like prince George and to see the same issue but just so much worse.”
The court system in Prince George and other localities have reformed how to deal with substance abusers, but for a long time the courts treated them just like any other criminal.
“If we just did by the book prosecution, if I was just a guy who got my cases from the police and went into to court I would do what we were doing, what I think a lot of prosecutors were doing for decades and decades. We’ll say possession of heron is a felony, we’ll make that guy a felon.”
Thus that person is put in what Dustin describes as a cycle of perpetual imprisonment in-and-out until death. But like the world the courthouse changes. With investments in treatment and drug court proceedings Dustin believes the court system in Prince George can make a difference.
There were a lot of questions: What’s happening in our schools, who’s educating our kids, our doctors and families, who’s prepared to help if an overdose occurs. But a question that hit home was one by Roney.
“How many people in this room know someone with the dementia?” Roney asked. “Does that person know they have dementia?”
That’s what addiction is like from Roney’s perspective. What Roney and the forum participants hopes going forward is for residents to take these lessons to their families and neighbors. The more people aware of the crisis ahead the more people can respond.