It’s almost become background noise, as ubiquitous as smart phones, streaming television services and the intrusion of social media on everyday life.
Except it’s deadly.
It’s opioid addiction, and no matter the origin it is commonly considered one of the major challenges facing Surry County and much of America today.
For one group of area churches — United Methodist churches affiliated with the Greater Mount Airy Missional Network — standing by and simply reading statistics and hoping someone else can help is no longer an option.
Rev. Danny Miller, pastor at Central United Methodist Church and convener of the Greater Mount Airy Missional Network, said the churches are hoping to take an active role in addressing the issue community wide.
That effort begins with a planned Greater Mount Airy Community Opioid Forum set for 7 p.m. on Feb. 11 at the Historic Earle Theatre on Main Street in Mount Airy. He said a snow date for Feb. 18, same time and location, has been set aside.
Miller said recently it’s no secret opioid addiction is at alarming levels, both locally and nationally.
”We took a survey of all the congregation members in the churches, asking them what the three top concerns in the community were,” he said. “The opioid crisis, or drugs, was No. 1.” The next two were homelessness and hunger, both widespread issues of great concern to his churches, but for now he said the missional network is focusing on what it can do to address the opioid crisis.
”We’ve been hearing about this crisis in the country, we’ve been hearing about Surry County being high in the statistic as far as per capita overdoses, per capita consumption of opioids.”
The figures back him up. Recently, John Shelton, Surry County emergency services director, released year-end figures for his department’s work in 2019. Those figures showed 26 people died from drug overdoses in 2019, a slight decrease from 32 the year before.
EMS personnel responded to 347 overdose incidents last year, down from 372 the year before, but Shelton said the figures are misleading, in that there’s been no real improvement in the number of local people using the illicit drugs.
“I think the decrease in the fatalities is that Narcan is so readily available now,” Shelton said recently, referring to the brand name for naloxone, a medication that blocks respiratory depression and other effects of opioids, especially in overdoses.
As recently as 2017, Surry County experienced 55 overdose deaths.
Since that time EMS and police have been able to use Narcan, often saving the lives of those suffering from opioid overdoses, which has contributed to a drop in the number of deaths. Now the drug is more readily available to anyone, thus people suffering from overdoses sometimes are being administered the drug by others with them, without ever calling EMS or without going to the hospital.
“So I don’t think those numbers are right,” the emergency services director said of the official statistics.
Other sources seem to back him up. According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2018 Surry County had the second-most emergency room visits for drug overdoses per person of any county in the nation. The department says the county is routinely among the worst in the state for such statistics.
Miller said he’s attended several local seminars on opioid addiction.
“I’ve begun to understand things in a different way, the challenges of how can the churches help? How can the faith community help? We know there is a physical, mental and spiritual component to substance abuse disorder; of course we’re here to help with the spiritual aspect, but we also feel we can help facilitate the conversation in the community.”
“We need every tool that’s available … it encompasses so many aspect of our community, whether it’s the judicial system, the healthcare system, it’s beginning to be a problem for DSS and children, it’s stressing so many areas of our community, it affects people for all social-economic backgrounds, from all racial backgrounds. We really want to help community leaders and citizens begin an open conversation. We hope it not only happens around the table at the forum, but that it also happens at committee tables, commissioners’ tables … and kitchen tables.”
That will start, he hopes, with the missional network forum.
He said Mark Willis, the director of the Surry County Opioid Response Team, will give an overview of the crisis and substance abuse disorder.
“We hope to get the overall picture of the opioid crisis and what’s currently being done,” Miller said.
Afterward, he said folks in the audience will be able to submit written questions to a panel for discussion.
Those who have agreed to serve on the panel include Shelton; Mount Airy Commissioner John Cawley; city Police Chief Dale Watson; Surry County Commissioner Eddie Harris; Capt. Scott Hudson, Surry County Sheriff’s Office; N.C. District 17B Judge Marion Boone; Dr. Jason Edsel, chief medical officer at Northern Regional Hospital; Emily McPeek, center director at Surry Daymark Recovery Service; Collin Miller, organizer/director/co-founder of Twin City Harm Reduction Collective of Winston-Salem; and Rev. Evelyn Lemons, minister at Chestnut Grove United Methodist Church who has been engaged in mission work associated with the opioid crisis.
Miller said he’s aware the summit would be simply a first step — no one should expect to walk out with the answers after a single meeting.
“The overarching purpose is to get a conversation started. Two things that are really a problem are shame and silence. In order to get past that, we have to have a conversation, to create a safe place where we can begin a conversation, to gain knowledge and understanding … about the opioid crisis.”
He said there will be follow-ups to the forum as well. Among plans are for a Bible study built around coping with opioid and other drug addiction, utilizing the Mountain Top Moments series by Dr. Ed Robb, during the spring.
He also said his group hopes to sponsor a community book study around the book Dopesick, by journalist Beth Macy. The book takes an in-depth look at the origins of the opioid epidemic nationally, focusing on rural areas in states such as North Carolina and Virginia.
”We hope to have Beth Macy in Mount Airy in the fall to talk about that, once everyone has done the book study.”
He said there are other ideas on the table too, but for now he and the Greater Mount Airy Missional Network want to focus on one thing — getting the conversation started.