Collaboration efforts in Arlington community may decrease numbers in opioid crisis
By Katrina Moses
Pentagram Staff Writer
Editor’s Note: This is part two in a three-part story series during Alcohol Awareness Month. Part two is about the nation’s opioid crisis.
In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to opioid pain relievers and health care providers began to prescribe these drugs at greater rates, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Instead of opioids becoming harmless, doctors began to increase these medications, which led to widespread misuse of prescription and nonprescription drugs before it became clear that these medications could indeed be highly addictive, according to HHS. In 2017, HHS declared a public emergency and announced a five-point strategy to combat the opioid crisis.
The five-point strategy includes:
• Improving access to treatment and recovery services;
• Promoting use of overdose-reversing drugs
• Strengthening our understanding of the epidemic through better public health surveillance;
• Providing support for cutting edge research on pain and addiction; and
• Advancing better practices for pain management.
Like the rest of the nation, Arlington County is also finding ways to combat the opioid crisis and ensure those addicted to the prescription drugs have available resources.
According to Arlington Addiction Recovery Initiative, over 2 million individuals in the United States were addicted to or misused prescription opioids in 2014. Nationally, more than 42,200 individuals died in the U.S in 2016 from all forms of opioid overdoses. In 2017, there were 55 nonfatal overdoses, and 19 fatal overdoses in Arlington. Due to this problem, Arlington County organizations and entities are responding through prevention education, addiction treatment, overdose response and recovery and collaboration.
Common prescription opioid painkillers that are being abused include oxycodone (oxycontin and percocet), hydrocodone (vicodin), fentanyl and many others.
Suzanne Somerville and Emily Siqveland both work for Department of Human Services and the Arlington Addiction Recovery Initiative.
The women said in 2016, the Arlington Police Department reached out to their division and said they noticed an increase of overdoses in the area, and they were not sure what to do, but knew collaboration was key.
Collaboration includes first responders, hospitals, the commonwealth attorney office, public schools and many others in the Arlington community.
“We knew we had a lot of work to do,” Somerville said. “We had our growing pains at first, but what as a county can we do about opioids and increases in the overdoses. We have to look at prevention and all types of addictions.”
The two said anyone can fall victim to opioid addiction regardless of age, gender or income status. This includes children and adults.
Somerville said she and Siqveland suspected kids were using prescription drugs to get high, but they were also drinking alcohol. The two also learned that homes can provide dangers such as parents who are keeping prescription as well as over-the-counter-medicines in the open. When an adult is prescribed painkillers for an accident or injury, parents should not leave those drugs in the open because that provides children access to prescription drugs that can cause harm to them.
“We have had so many cases where a kid or an adult was legitimately prescribed a pain pill for an accident or injury,” Somerville said.
She said her clients often tell her the first time taking the medicine felt good, but doing so also changed their lives forever.
According to www.onearlington.org, there are different hiding places youth hide drugs. Common places are highlighters, in candy wrappers, cough medicine and underneath toilet tanks.
Somerville and Siqveland said the public-school system in Arlington County is doing a good job with monitoring students who use prescription drugs. School counselors have noticed an increase of anxiety pills given to students. Somerville and Siqveland said parents should keep lines of open communication with their child to prevent substance misuse.
Ashley Savage, public information officer with Arlington County Police Department, said it is possible to decrease the incidents of substance misuse.
“Our community is safest when we work together and share the resources and strategies available to reduce the incidents of substance abuse, dependency and overdose,” Savage said.
Siqveland said that prevention and outreach is more her niche with AARI. Originally town hall meetings were done with the community to talk about the opioid crisis, but there were mixed results. During community events, AARI has a booth or table with a spinning wheel, information packets and goodies like a bag or notepads. There is usually drug-related trivia, which includes prevention and education questions for adults and kids.
Another form of education has been through a grant that Somerville and Siqveland received. The grant will be for bus advertisements geared toward opioid prevention. The bus ads will be seen on the inside and outside of buses. For now, the ads will be on Arlington Transit buses and regional metro buses.
Narcan training, or Revive training, is available in Arlington County. Narcan is naloxone, which is a safe and effective medication that can reverse an overdose from prescription opioids or heroin. Somerville and Siqveland said they would like to conduct at least two trainings a month. The duo train at shelters, Marymount University, with their high-risk clients with opioid history, community members and churches. These free trainings also provide a free Narcan bottle as well. Siqveland said when people request to have Narcan training; they need at least five people in the group to do training.
Somerville said the goal is to “get Narcan in as many hands as we can.” The two said when someone is overdosing, they can be doing everyday things in their life such as watching a movie or a daily routine. Somerville and Siqveland said using Narcan on someone who has overdosed is harmless, it has no side effects and it can be used on pregnant women.
In July, the duo plan to train the police department on using Narcan — the fire department is already trained. Somerville said in July legislation will allow Narcan trainings to last for as long as the trainer believes it’s needed. For example, the hourlong training can be conducted in 10 minutes. The duo believes having shorter trainings allows them to reach more people.
Another method of making sure older prescriptions aren’t causing harm to family members is Drug Take Days, which have been beneficial to decreasing the opioid epidemic, Savage, Somerville and Siqveland said.
“To address this crucial issue, the police department participates in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s National Prescription Drug Take Back Days,” Savage said. “These boxes provide the public with the opportunity to safely and securely dispose of prescription medications 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 day a year. The disposal service is free and anonymous with no questions asked.
According to Siqveland, more than 1,300 pounds of unwanted prescription drugs have been put in take back boxes. Somerville and Siqveland said during Drug Take Back Day, people have also included prescriptions for pets for disposal.
When veterinarians prescribe painkillers to animals, sometimes people will use the painkillers for themselves. Somerville and Siqveland said sometimes when this is done, it is because their doctor stopped prescribing them painkillers.
In fact, Siqveland knows a police officer who helps senior citizens dispose of their unused prescription drugs. She said kids are going through medicine cabinets for these unused prescription drugs to get high. She pointed out that addiction isn’t relegate to youth or younger adults. She is encountering senior citizens who are having issues to being addicted to painkillers.
Somerville and Siqveland said that they know drug dealers are passing out drugs for those who no longer have access to prescription drugs. They also noted they know some doctors are illegally or over prescribing painkillers for money. They said in recent years because of the increase in opioid overdoses, hospitals are managing how doctors are prescribing prescription drugs to patients. The two believe historically, doctors did not realize just how dangerous painkillers were to the body. They were probably prescribing prescription drugs to help patients with pain issues.
Although Somerville and Siqveland are helping those in Arlington County, the two said they don’t encounter a lot of service members or veterans. They believe that Veterans Affairs is assisting that demographic. Even though Somerville and Siqveland don’t have a lot of encounters with service members, they would like for military personnel to volunteer with AARI. The goal is to train them on prevention work, Narcan and having a more unified community effort.
Pentagram Staff Writer Katrina Moses an be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org