On Sunday, they saw firsthand what they’ve mostly just read about — how the epidemic is raging through communities across the United States.
In a conference room not far from the White House, more than 250 municipal leaders from communities as far away as Snohomish County, Wash., and Arapahoe County, Colo., shared horror stories about overdose deaths and pledged to work together on solutions to save lives.
“We all have to join together and own this problem. I can’t underscore how important it is for us. It has to start with us at the local level,” said Steve Williams, mayor of Huntington, W.Va., a panelist at the national opioid epidemic town hall hosted by the National Association of Counties.
The attendees sat at 24 round tables, each with a stack of The Palm Beach Post’s Generation Heroin section, which detailed the overdose deaths of 216 people in Palm Beach County in 2015. The front page of the section was a collage that included a photo of each person.
McKinlay, who helped distribute the copies, held one up and explained that the number of deaths had jumped to more than 500 last year. “If we were to do this for 2016, we would need two covers,’’ she said.
She also shared the story of Tasha McCraw, the daughter of her then-chief aide, who died of a suspected overdose in November. A few minutes later, a county commissioner from Colorado told the crowd how his nephew died of an overdose a few years ago.
Perhaps the most common recommendation heard during the two-hour meeting was for all first responders, including police officers and deputies, to carry and use the overdose antidote naloxone.
One day last August, rescue crews in Huntington, W. Va., had 26 overdose calls over a six-hour period from 3 to 9 p.m. “Of the 26, there were two we didn’t get to — they were found dead a couple of days later,” Williams said.
“But because two years (earlier) we had changed the way we were doing business and now everybody is equipped with naloxone, we didn’t have 24 funerals. Of those 24 we responded to, we had zero funerals. Those individuals have been given a second chance.”
The standing-room-only conference hall erupted in applause.
In Palm Beach County, a few police departments use naloxone, but Sheriff Ric Bradshaw refuses to let his deputies carry it, citing liability issues.
“It still shocks me when I hear of jurisdictions that don’t have a Narcan or a naloxone program,” said Russ Hamill, assistant police chief in Montgomery County, Md., who said use of the antidote has been endorsed by several law enforcement associations.
“There’s no downside to it. You’re not going to hurt anybody. At the end of the day, it’s not going to be a huge mandate on the problem but it is going to save lives in the short run.”
Community leaders were also urged to shatter the stigma associated with drug addiction, a stigma that serves as a roadblock to solutions.
About a year after Dr. Richard Jorgensen became coroner for DuPage County, Ill., in 2012, he struggled to get local leaders to respond to an alarming trend of 18 overdose deaths in July 2013.
“I was told I was embarrassing my county by talking about this,” he said. “Well, embarrassing your county is a 15-year-old with a needle in her arm dead.”
That stigma also applies to some law enforcement agencies.
“You will get some push-back from your police agencies who may view these individuals as junkies. They’re not just junkies. They’re human beings,” Hamill said.
“We swear as police to protect and to serve, and not just protect and serve when it’s easy. We are supposed to protect and serve everybody and that includes the poor person who is suffering from opioids addiction,” he said.
McKinlay and Berger, who were joined at Sunday’s meeting by Assistant County Administrator Todd Bonlarron, said they were encouraged by the widespread support of their counterparts from across the country to work collectively on a serious approach.
Some of the initiatives from Sunday’s meeting will be considered by the Palm Beach County Commission next month at a local opioids-response workshop.
“Maybe Sheriff Bradshaw will hear that (pro-naloxone) message from his counterparts across the country and maybe he can meet with us and tell us what his concerns are about and we can work together,’’ McKinlay said.
Sunday’s meeting was eye-opening, Berger said, because it illustrated the national reach of an epidemic known all too well in Palm Beach County. McKinlay, though, couldn’t help but see the irony in the national epidemic’s roots going back to Florida’s pill-mill crisis.
“We might have been the only ones who owned the pill-mill crisis,” she said, “but we are not the only ones who own this issue.”
WHAT THE POST FOUND
The heroin epidemic is raging in Palm Beach County, with a person dying every other day of a heroin-related overdose in 2015 — more than all fatal car crashes and double the number of homicides. The Post explored the lives of all 216 who died that year. To see their stories and more, go to myPalmBeachPost.com/generationheroin/