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Police, clergy, medical leaders team up to tackle opioid crisis in Hall

POSTED: May 14, 2017 12:30 a.m.
/The Times file photo

In December, Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order making Naloxone, the overdose antidote to opioids, available over the counter. Senate Bill 121, known as the Jeffrey Dallas Gay Jr. Act, was signed by the governor May 4 to turn the order into law and remove Naloxone from the dangerous drug list.

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The day Dallas Gay’s grandson died of an overdose, no one in the house had the antidote that could have saved his life. People at the scene were afraid to call law enforcement, and the police who showed up didn’t have the antidote anyway.

Since then, Gov. Nathan Deal has signed laws to prevent that scenario as opioid addiction and overdose rates spike nationwide.

A new group in Gainesville is trying to curb that trend.

“We’re seeing a significant increase in the epidemic in Hall County, so it’s time for us to gather together, rise up and try to come up with ways that we can inform the public,” Gay said.

Gay, whose grandson died a month short of his 22nd birthday in October 2012, is banding together with members of law enforcement, medical groups and the faith community to bring awareness. The group had its first meeting in April and plans to hold public forums in the near future.

“We’re looking at different angles to explore on how do we increase people’s awareness, how do we address concerns around treatment and also prevention and the conversations we need to have around stress in life, exacerbating factors that lead to addiction, family dynamics — just the whole comprehensive picture,” said the Rev. Stuart Higginbotham of Grace Episcopal Church, the clergy representative in the group.

Judy Brownell, Center Point Substance Abuse prevention director, said she was approached by Gainesville Police Chief Carol Martin about spearheading a group in the community.

Brownell said the goal is to show people what the problem is, where the help is and ways people can get involved.

“With opioids, what is startling or should be startling to the community is that it can happen very quickly, and it can happen from pain medications from surgery and then it can go very quickly from there,” she said.

In 2015, 33,000 people nationwide died from opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The overdose rate is quadruple what it was in 1999.

In December, Deal signed an executive order making Naloxone, the overdose antidote, available over the counter. Senate Bill 121, known as the Jeffrey Dallas Gay Jr. Act, was signed by the governor May 4 to turn the order into law and remove Naloxone from the dangerous drug list.

Gay said it was a “great honor” for his family to be with the governor when the legislation was signed, as it will “save innumerable lives” in his estimation.

“This bill now permits anyone to go to a pharmacy, anyone who might be at a risk of the scene of an overdose, and buy Naloxone without having to go through a doctor and getting a prescription,” he said.

The Medical Association of Georgia’s Project DAN, Deaths Avoided by Naloxone, has helped train and equip almost 60 agencies statewide, with a focus on North Georgia, Gay said.

Gay also praised the legislature for passing the 2014 medical amnesty law, which allows some immunity from prosecution for those calling in medical assistance in overdose cases.

“It’s talking about it that will end up being the thing that saves so many people’s lives,” Higginbotham said.

Gay said there are certain misconceptions about opioid overdoses. The conversation tends to focus on young people, although people aged 45-54 had the most overdoses in a 2000-2014 CDC study.

“This is not a particular addiction that is more prominent in people who are poor,” Higginbotham said. “It’s not a discriminating addiction.”

Hall County Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad Lt. Don Scalia said the prominence of heroin and other opiates in our area has risen along with the national rates.

“I’ve noticed more and more since I’ve been doing this here,” he said.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said 17 people died statewide in the first four months of this year from either furanyl fentanyl or a drug labeled U-47700, which matched the total 2016 death count.

One person in Hall County died of a fentanyl overdose this year, but Hall County and GBI officials have not released information on the case.

Fentanyl is a drug 100 times stronger than morphine. The GBI has recorded 50 cases related to this form of fentanyl this year.

A lethal dose of heroin is about 30 milligrams, Scalia said, but a lethal dose of fentanyl and its various versions would be around 3 milligrams.

Suspected fentanyl was found last month by MANS agents.

For Gay, the focus of the group’s work would be tackling the stigma attached to addiction.

“Addiction is a well-documented medical condition,” he said. “It is a disease, and we tend to treat it with a stigma attached to it that people don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to admit to it. Family members are shunned, but it’s a disease no different than leukemia or heart disease or cancer.”

With public forums to start in the late summer or early fall, Gay said he hopes people will understand addiction and “distinguish that from bad behavior or improper behavior.”

When Higginbotham met with members of the group, the statistics to him were “mind-boggling.”

From the spiritual angle, he said he is particularly concerned with the prevailing notion to “numb out.”

“People don’t want to be uncomfortable and they don’t want to be in any pain at all, so they will take and overtake pain pills to not have any discomfort whatsoever,” he said.

With open dialogue, Higginbotham said it will help people in the community get “past the shame and the embarrassment and the ambivalence around engaging it.”



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