County News

County officials discuss toll opioids take on communities at congressional briefing

Laura Hanen of the National Association of City and County Health Officials talks about the opioid crisis to a packed room Nov. 13 on Capitol Hill. Photo by Hugh Clarke

Loudoun County, Va Chair Phyllis Randall to Congress: It is illogical to think you can deal with opioids without funds

The opioid crisis is taking a toll not only on residents but on county employees and budgets as well, county officials told a packed hearing room Nov. 13 on Capitol Hill.

Drug overdoses killed 64,000 people in the United States last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s an increase of more than 22 percent over the 52,404 drug deaths recorded the previous year. The crisis is overwhelming counties and their budgets.

Although some might say that the opioid problem bypasses well-off counties, Phyllis Randall, chair, Loudoun County, Virginia Board of Supervisors, said that her county, ranked No. 1 in median household income, is not immune to the crisis.

“We have the same opioid crisis as everyone else,” she said at the briefing, held by the National Association of County and City Health Officials in partnership with NACo and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Speakers highlighted the ways that opioid misuse and dependence is affecting their local communities.

“What is misunderstood is who is using opioids,” she said, adding that most opioid abusers in her county are Caucasian, well-educated and under 40 years old.

‘Let’s talk about the disease, not the drug’

Although opioids make headlines, it’s just replacing other drugs that have been in the headlines in the past — like crack cocaine, PCP and meth, Randall said. “We have to stop talking about the drugs and talk about the drug dependency issue,” said Randall, a mental health therapist who works with substance-abusing offenders at a local adult detention center. “This is a clinical condition, it’s not a character flaw.”

Loudoun County is trying to combat the opioid crisis by training people on how to use Naloxone, which she credits for saving at least 15 lives in Loudoun County since 2015. The county is also holding “courageous conversations to talk about this disease, to take the stigma out of the equation,” she noted.

Counties should “talk to your community service board” and “be ready to lead a community conversation and include people who are on drugs and their families,” she said. “Don’t judge them.”

As far as federal dollars needed to help with the opioid crisis, Randall said that “it is illogical to think you can deal with this without funds. Sixty-thousand people a year are dying — it’s going to take funds. We need a sustainable funding source. We need resources, funding and partnerships.”

About six hours west of Loudoun County lies Cabell County, West Virginia, ground zero in the fight against opioid addiction.

Dr. Michael Kilkenny, health director, Cabell-Huntington Health Department, West Virginia, said that his county responds to more than 2,000 overdose calls a year. He also called for funds to help solve the problem. “We’re paying the price anyway,” he said. “It costs a whole lot more to incarcerate than spend money on prevention and education.”

Because the county seat, Huntington, collects data on overdoses (location, time of day), it allowed Cabell County to be designated as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a classification that allows counties to access a federal grant program for additional resources. Also in their arsenal: naloxone training, recovery assistance and syringe-exchange programs to prevent the spread of disease.

The opioid crisis is also taking a toll on first responders, Kilkenny said. “They’re not used to entering a home and seeing dead young people with children.” He called the children of the addicted the “hidden victims” in the opioid epidemic.


Opioid Hearing

In other opioid news, the Trump administration is taking steps to make it easier to prosecute traffickers of potent synthetic opioids that have led to an uptick in overdose deaths. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) intends to temporarily schedule all fentanyl-related substances on an emergency basis, the Justice Department announced. That classification will let prosecutors charge people trafficking substances similar to fentanyl with the same charges as fentanyl, which is up to 50 times more potent than heroin.  

Fentanyl — and its analogues — are a growing part of a growing problem in the United States,” a DEA official said in a call with reporters, adding that the department is seeing “new fentanyl-related substances crop up at alarming rates.”

At issue are overseas chemical manufacturers who try to alter the chemical structure of fentanyl sent to the United States to evade the Controlled Substances Act. This also makes it harder for prosecutors to convict drug traffickers. The temporary scheduling can last up to two years, with the possibility of a one-year extension. It goes into effect no sooner than 30 days after the DEA publishes a notice of intent in the Federal Register.

Contact the Editor

Bev Schlotterbeck
Executive Editor
(202) 942-4249
bschlott@naco.org