Opioid crisis brings federal, state and local officials together in St. George to discuss challenges, solutions

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, Assistant Attorney General Scott Reed, U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development State Director Randy Parker, Washington County commissioners Victor Iverson, Zachary Renstrom and Dean Cox, Dixie Regional Medical Center administrator Mitchell Cloward and Washington County Purgatory Correctional Facility health administrator Jon Worlton at an opioid roundtable discussion, St. George, Utah, Oct. 17, 2018 | Photo by Mikayla Shoup, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — In Utah, 24 people die from prescription opioid overdoses every month. The ongoing issue of opioid addiction has been a national concern for years. On Wednesday, doctors, advocates, local law enforcement and concerned citizens gathered at an opioid roundtable discussion held in the Washington County Commission office  to hear government officials, hospital administrators and federal agents discuss the resources needed to help counter the opioid crisis in Southern Utah.

Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson speaks about the opioid crisis at a roundtable discussion, St. George, Utah, Oct. 17, 2018 | Photo by Mikayla Shoup, St. George News

Utah ranked seventh-highest in the nation for drug overdose deaths from 2013-15. But while national opioid overdoses increased by 30 percent from 2016-17, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Utah’s opioid-related deaths actually decreased by 16 percent during that same year.

Read more: Opioid, heroin deaths on the decline in Utah, state officials say

“Utah is one of the bright spots nationally,” said U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development State Director Randy Parker.

While Utah appears to be moving in the right direction when it comes to opioid misuse, there are many residents who are still affected.

The group in Utah with the highest prescription overdose rates is those aged 45-54. In Washington County there were 2,171 emergency room overdose encounters in 2017, said Dixie Regional Medical Center administrator Mitchell Cloward.

Any age group can be affected by opioid addiction. Teenagers can access the pills by purchasing them from the dark web or by stealing them from friends or family members.

Another issue law enforcement has seen is teens having “skittles” parties, in which everyone at the party contributes a few pills, mix them up, and each take a few random pills.

Virginia Keys, special agent with the Food and Drug Administration, and Brian Besser, agent in charge with the Drug Enforcement Administration address the opioid crisis at a roundtable discussion, St. George, Utah, Oct. 17, 2018 | Photo by Mikayla Shoup, St. George News

They also have “resurrection” parties where teens purposefully overdose in order to be revived using a Naloxone kit, which isn’t always enough to save their life, said Virginia Keys, a special agent with the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations.

And while prescription opioid deaths may have decreased, heroin-related deaths have actually increased, said Sharmane Gull, Washington County Court Support Services program manager.

However, not all opioid-related deaths were from recreational use. Many of the people with opioid addiction were prescribed the pills by their doctor, which raises the question whether doctors should be prescribing the medication.

“People kind of assume, ‘If it’s a prescription for me then I can use as much as I want,’ and the truth is that the prescription that you have written for you can hurt you just as much as a prescription that isn’t written for you,” said Washington County Deputy Attorney Natalie Neilson.

While many doctors are trying to do the right thing, there are doctors who prescribe opioids when they shouldn’t and those who do it out of greed, Drug Enforcement Administration Agent in Charge Brian Besser said. The DEA is investigating hundreds of doctors selling opioids.

While preventative practices are starting to be put in place, many people are still falling into addiction. There were 2,306 “detox alerts” in Washington County Purgatory Correctional Facility in 2017 said Jon Worlton, the jail’s health administrator.

All inmates are screened for substance abuse upon entering the facility. Those who are determined to be in need of a detox have an alert placed in their medical file and are monitored by nurses.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and Utah Assistant Attorney General Scott Reed talk about the opioid crisis at a roundtable discussion, St. George, Utah, Oct. 17, 2018 | Photo by Mikayla Shoup, St. George News

There is  a high public cost when it comes to booking drug addicts. It costs $50 for initial booking, plus extra for detox alerts. Inmate housing costs $70 per day.

When adding up the cost for booking and housing 2,306 inmates for an average of two days, the total yearly cost is estimated to be $437,840, Worlton said.

But once an inmate is released, there are further problems they must face. One issue is transportation. A large number of released inmates are picked up from jail by their drug dealer, immediately putting them in a place to go back to taking the opioids, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said. Providing transportation could help reduce the number of these cases.

Another need in Washington County is recovery housing such as sober living homes and transitional housing units. These homes provide addicts with a safe place to recover. Location is key, Lion’s Gate Recovery counselor Josh Campbell said, as they need to be within walking distance of jobs and doctors. But zoning issues and public resistance to building these homes in neighborhoods makes it difficult to build new facilities.

Another issue is that even though 95 percent of diagnoses are dual diagnoses, meaning that these people have an opioid addiction plus another issue such as a mental health disorder.

Before Maryellen Langley, the psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner at Family Healthcare, was hired, primary care providers had to treat mental health disorders, which they are not trained to do. She said that while the county has good therapists in the jail system, they do not have a trained psychiatrist who can write prescriptions.

“I don’t see any reason why we can’t fund ‘me’ in the county. We would cut down so much on this recidivism, relapse. Ninety-five percent of people, and I am the only person providing that care right now,” Langley said. “And I can’t do it all. I can’t see everyone.”

But not all efforts have to take place at a government level, Reyes said. People can help by starting at the base level, by properly disposing of the opioids in their medicine cabinet.

“That’s something that everybody can feel good about. It’s the lowest hanging fruit. Just get rid of that stuff,” Reyes said. “Don’t take it in the first place.”

Disposing of opioids can be done by attending a “take back day” and dropping off unused or expired prescriptions.

A Utah Take Back Day is scheduled for Oct. 27 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at various locations. Take back bags can also be purchased at stores to dissolve pills in order to properly dispose of them any time.

“My goal, especially with utahtakeback.org, is to get in the aggregate, the maximum amount of these drugs out of our cabinets, out of our waterways and our toilets, out of the side of the road, and incinerate them,” Besser said.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter:  @STGnews | @MikaylaShoup

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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  • high5 October 17, 2018 at 8:46 pm

    Decrease deaths because da! Mesquite NV- Hello anybody home??

  • iceplant October 17, 2018 at 10:19 pm

    If you want solutions to the opioid crisis, Utah, stop demonizing medicine that has replaced opiates for millions of people, myself included. Cannabis heals.

    Vote YES on Prop 2.

  • justsaying October 18, 2018 at 5:31 am

    How’s that war on drugs working out for ya ‘Merica? Just say no right?

  • KR567 October 18, 2018 at 5:41 am

    LOL ! …talk about a group of people that have absolutely no idea of what’s going on

  • Carpe Diem October 18, 2018 at 8:36 am

    24/ a month dead from prescription opioids, almost one a day! How many MJ overdose deaths did we have this year? Last year? hmmmm…

  • youcandoit October 18, 2018 at 8:47 pm

    Also how about lock all your medicine up so nobody sneaks into it. It’s a no brainer.yeeeesh

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