As she talks in her office in the Portsmouth City Health Department, Lisa Roberts has a telling graphic displayed on her computer screen. The graphic states Ohio is No. 1 of all 50 states in the number of fatal opioid overdoses. Roberts later adds West Virginia has a higher number of deaths, but Ohio is No. 1 per capita.
“We simply have more people here,” says Roberts, who has many titles, but prefers to use that of “public health nurse.”
Portsmouth’s reputation as the pill mill capital of the country may or may not be earned, but there are plenty of media and journalistic reports labeling it just that. According to Roberts, the last local pill mill was shut down in December 2011. That hasn’t seemed to change the fact that the city and surrounding county have a drug problem.
Probably surprising to no one, while the state numbers are bad, the statistics are not any more encouraging at the local level. In the years 2011-16, Scioto County suffered 148 unintentional drug overdoses, what was called a crude rate of 31.8 percent. Those numbers gave Scioto the dubious distinction of having the eighth worst OD rate of all 88 Ohio counties. Those numbers came from the Ohio Department of Health. Roberts and her compatriots in the city and county health departments, along with those in the local drug treatment community as well as law enforcement and medical personnel, are doing what they can to reduce those and other unwelcome numbers.
For example, Robert says that at one time, because of high rates of intravenous drug use, the national Centers for Disease Control warned Portsmouth and Scioto County were ripe for an outbreak of HIV. Partly in response, Roberts started a well-received needle exchange program which continues to this day. The feared HIV outbreak never happened, unlike what Roberts says took place in a small town in Indiana which was suddenly plagued with more than 100 HIV cases. Roberts also talks about a high local rate of hepatitis C she is trying to reduce by providing clean needles.
“Hep C is definitely spreading, there is no doubt about that,” she maintains.
On another front, on Wednesday, thanks largely to the efforts of Sean Sturgill, owner of Smith’s Pharmacy and Home Medical, the city received the first of four shipments of just over 1,000 doses of Nalaxone, more commonly known as Narcan. The drugs will be turned over to local police and fire personnel who are often the first responders when a drug overdose is suspected. Roberts says local hospitals and health workers also will receive their share.
The Narcan was completely free. “Nobody will ever pay for this,” Sturgill says. He adds he became involved after seeing a notice about a grant offered by a drug wholesaler who has requested to remain anonymous. “They don’t want any publicity,” Sturgill says. He claims he was “shocked” when he received an email stating he had been awarded the grant.
According to Roberts and Josh Shepard, overdose prevention coordinator for the city, if Narcan is given quickly enough in instances of a suspected opioid overdose, it can definitely save a life, by reversing the effects of opioids on the brain and the respiratory system. The drug is administered in the form of a nasal spray.
Roberts notes Narcan is now available to the public without a prescription from Kroger’s and CVS pharmacies, adding many insurances will pay for the drug. Ohio law protects Good Samaritans trying to help in instances of suspected overdose. Narcan is harmless if given to someone who is not suffering a drug overdose. According to information provided by Roberts, Narcan does not work on overdoses caused by non-opioid drugs such as cocaine or benzodiazepines, such as Xanex, Valium or Klonopin. It will also not help with problems caused by methamphetamines or alcohol.
Shepherd describes Narcan as a “band-aid” in instances of opioid overdose. Both he and Roberts say persons suspecting an overdose always should call 911.
Some signs of an overdose include slow and shallow breathing (breathing may stop); vomiting; the person’s face may appear pale or clammy; skin may be blue, gray or ashen; or the victim’s pulse may be slow, erratic or nonexistent.
Shepard singles out for special acknowledgment the Portsmouth Fire Department, who he says really has increased its response to suspected overdoses. He notes that when multiple overdoses happen at the same time, ambulances can be spread thin, circumstances sometimes even preventing crews from being able to respond to non-overdose emergencies.
“They really stepped it up,” Shepherd says of the fire department.
Fire Chief William Raison was not immediately available for comment.
Reach Tom Corrigan at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931