SALISBURY – Officials in Wicomico County last week called on community members to voice their concerns about the opioid and heroin epidemic.
Last Thursday, county leaders hosted the first of many public forums entitled “Taking Back Our Community,” which will gather community input from residents and use those ideas and concerns to better address the opioid epidemic in Wicomico County.
Wicomico County Health Department Health Officer Lori Brewster credited the county’s Opioid Intervention Team, which consists of various local agencies, for creating the inaugural event.
“I think this is a topic of significant interest for many,” she said. “I would like to see the community participate in addressing the problem, taking back our community.”
While Wicomico County has seen a 24 percent decrease in overdose admissions to the emergency department as well as a significant decrease in overdose deaths during the first three months of the calendar year – the county reported eight less deaths than in the previous year – Brewster said the opioid epidemic is still persistent.
“One overdose is one too many, particularly under my watch,” she said. “It’s a huge public health issue and as the health officer it’s something I want to see decline.”
Acting Wicomico County State’s Attorney Ella Disharoon, Sheriff Mike Lewis and County Executive Bob Culver joined Brewster last Thursday as panelists for the forum, answering questions from the audience and relaying ongoing efforts to combat the opioid epidemic in Wicomico.
Culver told the audience the county council and the executive’s office have worked together to fund programs like the Community Outreach Addictions Team (C.O.A.T.).
“There’s a lot more to it than the money, it’s the passion to love people …,” he said. “We are the only county in the state of Maryland with a decrease in overdose rates … We are very proud of our success, but at the same time we’re not successful enough because we still have deaths. We still have overdoses.”
Disharoon told the audience her office works on a daily basis to prosecute drug dealers and give those addicted to opioids a second chance with a drug treatment court program.
She argued, however, that laws recently passed in the Maryland legislature that reduce penalties for drug crimes will inhibit the ability to get people the help they need.
“There also is some punishment that has to go with the rehabilitation …,” she said. “It’s an alternative and if there’s nothing hanging over their head we can’t force them to get treatment.”
Lewis agreed and called on community members to get involved.
“Each and every one of you has made a decision to get involved and that’s what we need,” he said. “I can’t do it alone. Madam state’s attorney can’t do it alone. Your healthcare officials can’t do it alone. Your executive branch and your legislative branch can’t do it alone. We need a community to get involved like I see here tonight.”
While much of the evening was spent answering questions on transitional housing, overprescribing, Narcan, and various prevention and treatment services, for example, many in the audience, including those in recovery, asked for ways to help.
“An unexpected side effect of what you’ve done here tonight is you’ve brought together people that are seeking help, but also people that are seeking to help,” said WBOC’s Jimmy Hoppa, moderator for the event.
Brewster said suggestions and input from the community will be brought to the Opioid Intervention Team’s strategic planning session for further discussion.