OCEAN CITY – Discussion of the growing opioid crisis dominated the Worcester County Health Department’s annual public health conference.
The conference, held at The Carousel on Wednesday, was highlighted by a panel discussion of the new Worcester County Heroin/Opioid Community Response Plan. Officials from the health department, Atlantic General Hospital, law enforcement and several treatment programs shared their observations and talked about their efforts to combat the drug problem. The fact that overdose fatalities are on the rise came up multiple times.
“It’s largely due to fentanyl and its analogs which really scares the living daylights out of me,” said Tim Sponaugle, a retired FBI special agent who is now the heroin coordinator for the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office.
Sponaugle told the audience that though overdose fatalities increasing, Worcester County was very engaged in changing that.
“Worcester County is doing a fantastic job,” he said. “They’ve been very forward thinking.”
The response plan released Wednesday outlines the county’s current opioid abuse prevention strategies, early intervention programs, treatment programs and efforts to collect relevant data. It’s meant to identify gaps in service and prevent the duplication of efforts by different agencies.
Worcester County State’s Attorney Beau Oglesby said Wednesday that existing programs such as drug court were helping those dealing with addiction. He said that law enforcement had to be creative because the opioid epidemic wasn’t like previous drug issues.
“The prosecution of these people is much different because they’re almost always users themselves,” he said.
Michael Franklin, president and CEO of Atlantic General Hospital, said that in 2013, the hospital’s emergency room handled 70 drug overdoses. In 2016, the emergency room handled 144. Because some of those being admitted need immediate help, healthcare professionals able to assist have been placed closer to the entrance.
“We’ve got people that can immediately start intervening,” he said. “When that patient gets dumped there, we can deal with that.”
While the hospital is doing what it can to best help overdose patients, Franklin said the growing number of them proved that not enough was being done elsewhere to prevent people from getting to that point.
“It’s because everything else has failed that we even have to do this stuff …,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work we need to do to prevent the system from failing to prevent people from ending up in our emergency room.”
Buddy Jenkins, representing the Atlantic Club, described how the death of his daughter had prompted the family to do something to help those battling addiction. Noticing that the various support and fellowship groups were spread out all over the place, his family created the Joan W. Jenkins Foundation’s Atlantic Club’s Worcester County Addiction Cooperative Services building on Route 50.
“I wanted a safe place, a home place, that would be there forever,” Jenkins said.
Today, the building houses seven full-time counselors. Jenkins says what he’s most proud of is the fact that the fellowship that takes place at the building helps with what he calls the society level changes needed to deal with addiction. Annually, 50,000 people visit the facility.
“They are working together,” he said. “They’re part of the solution. That’s the key.”
Jackie Ball, representing the Worcester County Warriors, shared news of one of the most recent heroin-related organizations to form. Ball explained that she and co-founder Heidi McNeeley meant for the group to help people who were in the situation they’d been in as parents of children dealing with addiction.
“All the things we experienced as mothers we wanted to make sure this group would address,” she said. “In one year we’ve done a lot.”
In addition to the discussion regarding the opioid response plan, attendees at this year’s health conference were offered naloxone training and heard from Michael Baier, overdose prevention director for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, as well as Clay Stamp, executive director of the state’s Opioid Operational Command Center.
Baier described the history of the current epidemic its roots in the use of prescription painkillers.
“But not for this huge increase in the prescribing of prescription opioids it’s hard to imagine we’d have the deaths at this rate,” he said.
He pointed out that the use of heroin rose drastically in 2010 when OxyContin was reformulated so it wouldn’t be as easily abused. In recent years, the increasing use of fentanyl is a major cause for concern.
“This has drastically increased the potency of the drugs people are buying on the street and the risk of death,” Baier said.
Stamp took the opportunity to stress Gov. Larry Hogan’s commitment to fighting the opioid problem. He said the governor had dedicated $50 million in funding over five years to address the crisis. Because emergency management officials are accustomed to coordinating various efforts, Stamp said his team was bringing in resources health officials might not have considered to address the issue. He praised Worcester County’s efforts.
“You’re a shining example throughout the state with what you’re doing,” he said. “The enormity of the situation is mind-boggling.”