Bedford County officials, Herring discuss opioid epidemic and strain on resources

More than 100 drug overdoses have been recorded in Bedford County so far in 2017, but it’s not a situation that’s unheard of, according to state and local officials who met in Bedford on Tuesday morning to discuss the state’s opioid epidemic.

About 20 Bedford community leaders and officials met with Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring on Tuesday morning to explain the local struggles with opioid addiction and suggest some additional measures to help prevent addiction from taking hold of so many. Herring’s office has addressed the issue in a few different ways, such as by backing bills to encourage safe overdose reporting within the criminal justice system and allowing probation officers access to Virginia’s Prescription Monitoring Program to help stem abuse.

“I think we’ve also made a lot of progress in changing people’s attitudes toward addiction over the last few years,” he said at Tuesday’s meeting. “I think we still have more work to do, but this is something that more and more people realize is not about a moral failing; it is much more a disease and an illness and that it’s something that can touch anyone.”

Throughout Bedford County, EMS personnel respond to overdose calls and use naloxone to revive many who have overdosed. Naloxone is a drug that reverses the effects of opioids. Bedford County Fire & Rescue Chief Jack Jones said the county saw about 40 overdoses in 2016 but more than 100 in the past seven months.

Nationally, more than 60,000 people died from overdoses in 2016, with more than 1,100 of those in Virginia, Herring said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data on drug overdoses from 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, Virginia had fewer drug overdose deaths than almost all surrounding states and had the 12th fewest number of drug overdose deaths in a list of all 50 states. CDC data show Bedford County saw 47 drug poisoning deaths in 2015, compared with 18 drug poising deaths in Amherst County, 27 drug poisoning deaths in Campbell County, 27 drug poisoning deaths in Lynchburg and 57 drug poisoning deaths in Roanoke County.

Jones said responders must be cognizant of storing doses of naloxone at proper temperatures and not letting them overheat. Manufacturer recommendations state the drug must be kept at room temperature and out of direct light. When an overdose is the result of a stronger opioid like fentanyl (which can be up to 50 times more potent than heroin), he said responders have to carry more naloxone than would typically be needed for a heroin overdose.

Personnel with the Bedford County Department of Social Services said they’ve received 26 Child Protective Services complaints related to heroin and 39 complaints related to pills so far this year. Drug testing for the department’s clients has grown from about 50 tests per month to about 150 tests per month in recent years, according to Tomi Turner, family services manager for Bedford County Department of Social Services.

With heavy caseloads and the persistent nature of addiction, Bedford community leaders at the meeting said their agencies have strained to accommodate this growing issue.

John Fedor, chief probation and parole officer for the Virginia district composed of Bedford County and the town of Bedford, said his department has developed a substance abuse program of its own to address addiction in those leaving imprisonment.

Despite a pervasive lack of funding and resources, Bedford officials who were present praised the cooperation and work between departments and agencies.

“I will say that’s one thing that I have seen all across the state is how folks who are on the front lines of this have really stepped up, especially law enforcement,” Herring said.

Bedford Police Chief Todd Foreman added, “The teamwork in the community is great, and the way we’re coming together to try to solve the problem — just sometimes the resources aren’t always there for us.”

Suggestions for prevention included expanding education to young people. Horizon Behavioral Health CEO Damien Cabezas suggested the Office of the Attorney General make more use of social media in campaigns in order to better reach youth. He also emphasized the importance of employment during the addiction recovery process.

Turner said education about drug addiction needs to start when children are 7 and 8 years old rather than as teenagers, when it’s already too late for many.

“It’s heartbreaking to hear, but it’s a reality,” Herring added.

On his end, Herring said he’s worked to step up prosecution of drug dealers and traffickers and on creating some “innovative prevention and education strategies,” including a film to raise awareness about addiction.

In the evening, community members sat for a screening of “Heroin: The Hardest Hit,” a documentary about heroin addiction from the Virginia Office of the Attorney General, followed by a community discussion at the Bower Center for the Arts.

At the meeting, Herring called the documentary a cornerstone of his office’s efforts at preventing addiction.

“We felt strongly that sometimes the messages of ‘drugs are bad, just don’t do them’ is not enough information, especially for young people,” he said. “We need to get more information into the hands of families all over so that they’re talking about this.”

This article originally appeared in The Roanoke Times.