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Opioid forum set for Sept. 14

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Jan King Robinson is seen in the president’s office at Albemarle Hospital on Wednesday.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Friday, August 11, 2017

Area leaders who want to understand the opioid abuse crisis and ways to combat it may want to clear their calendars on Sept. 14.

That's when Pasquotank County, Albemarle Regional Health Services and other area agencies plan to host a regional forum on opioid abuse, a problem health officials have described as an “epidemic.”

In June, Pasquotank County commissioners agreed to hold a leadership forum on opioid abuse. The move followed a request from the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, asking counties to get involved in the issue.

On Wednesday, Pasquotank Commissioners Jeff Dixon, Bill Sterritt and Bettie Parker met at the county's social services building with officials from ARHS, Perquimans County, Elizabeth City and others to continue planning the forum. They agreed to hold it Thursday, Sept. 14, from 8 a.m. to noon at the K.E. White Center at Elizabeth City State University. The session will include an overview of the scope of opioid abuse, current efforts to combat it, and how local officials could support those efforts.

Former Albemarle Hospital administrator Jan King Robinson will be the event's facilitator, and she noted Friday the severity of the problem.

“The leading cause of death now for Americans under the age of 50 is overdoses,” Robinson said during the meeting, noting ARHS officials or other expert speakers could provide local statistics as well.

One speaker invited to the forum is Donnie Varnell, a retired State Bureau of Investigation agent who has continued his work on combating drug use and promoting assisted diversion programs to help persons with drug habits convicted of low-level crimes.

Ashley Stoop, ARHS' public health and response coordinator, also observed that public officials are still trying to catch up with the growth in opioid abuse. Evidence-based strategies are making progress against the problem, she noted, but added “we're very much in a transition time where we are gathering the data; we are on the front line.”

Stoop has previously detailed ARHS used grant funding to purchase prescription medication drop-off boxes, host medication take-back events, and provide educational programs on opioid abuse.

Echoing other officials who've said opioid abuse affects both young and old, both rich and poor, Stoop said some of the most “heart-breaking” cases involved high school athletes who got addicted after being prescribed painkillers for injuries.

The forum's organizers also continued to stress Wednesday that they want to provide local officials information they can use. The forum's goal will be to detail the problem, what's already being done about it, and how local officials could help those efforts, Robinson explained.

Time constraints were another big concern Wednesday, as organizers noted the forum could include 70 or more local officials, counting county and municipal officials, social services directors, law enforcement officials, school board members and even local state lawmakers. That's a lot people to coordinate group discussions with, they noted.

Dixon also noted there's significant public interest in attending the forum, but its focus is on informing and mobilizing elected officials. Community forums devoted to the opioid abuse issue may be held later.

As a public meeting, the forum cannot be closed to the public, but the proposed agenda includes no time for public comment or questions. ARHS spokeswoman Jill Jordan clarified Thursday the event would have space to accommodate “observers.”

ARHS Director Battle Betts, who also attended Wednesday’s meeting, said northeastern North Carolina is ahead of other parts of the state in responding to opioid abuse, but “unsettling gaps” remain in responding to the problem.

Though looking forward to the forum, Betts also noted, “the real work begins when we walk out the door.”

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