The numbers are staggering and the impact even greater when it comes to opioid abuse in Bryan County.
A panel Monday afternoon at Richmond Hill City Center, coordinated by the Bryan County Opioid Prevention Project, discussed steps forward the community can take to address the issue.
“This has reached epidemic proportions,” Congressman Buddy Carter told the crowd of more than 50 people. “The president has even declared it a national emergency.”
Mary Fuller, who is coordinating the BCOPP as part of a federal grant, said the panel was aimed at starting a conversation about opioid abuse locally.
“We can’t deny it exists,” she said.
Bryan County was one of just four chosen in Georgia for federal monies to create the awareness campaign.
Fuller said the opioid prescription rate in Bryan County is nearly 91 percent. It was 70 percent in 2009. The surrounding counties show a low of 55 percent in Liberty County to 85 percent in Chatham County.
The Richmond Hill Police Department also confirmed that there have been four deaths due to opioid abuse in the city this year alone.
Fuller said another reason Bryan County was chosen for the prevention grant was the numbers found in the Georgia Department of Education Student Health Survey. Those statistics show that 4.7 percent of ninth graders in Bryan County reported misusing prescription pain killers in the 30 days prior to taking the survey. The statewide average was 1.8 percent.
“The school survey numbers may be a little controversial because they are self-reported,” she said. “But it does say something about where our youth are at.”
Panelists in addition to Carter included Capt. Brendon Green of the Richmond Hill Fire Department, Lt. Col. Matt Griffin from Winn Army Hospital at Fort Stewart, Alex Tucker of Richmond Hill Pharmacy and George Taylor of the DEA office in Savannah.
But the most moving part of the afternoon was Janell Fuller (no relation to Mary), whose twin sons Robby and Rusty have experienced opioid addiction.
“I’ve lived in Richmond Hill 40 years and been married to my husband Robert for 45 years,” she said. “Never did I think our sons would become addicts. They didn’t set out to be. They played sports growing up and attended church.”
Janell Fuller read a long letter from Robby, who is awaiting trial in the Bryan County Jail on several drug-related charges.
“Drugs do not discriminate,” he wrote.
Robby said he dabbled in things like pot as a teenager, but was clean after getting married at 26 and working 12 years for CSX as an engineer. After taking up weight lifting, a shoulder injury was his first brush with opioids.
Between weight lifting injuries and a work injury, he said he had eight surgeries in five years. When opioids were not enough, he eventually turned to heroin and then meth. He said it cost him his marriage, a relationship with his son, his possessions and all of his savings.
“You always think you’ll be the one who can control the drugs, but they control you,” he wrote. “We are good people who made bad choices.”
Greene of the RHFD said all department vehicles are equipped with NARCAN nasal spray, which can reverse the effects of opioid overdose within minutes.
“We had to use our first one within two weeks of getting it,” he said.
Taylor of the DEA said there are 94 licensed medical providers in Bryan County who are allowed to prescribe opioids and seven pharmacies that can fill prescriptions. But there currently is only one physician who is licensed to treat opioid addiction and then only up to 30 patients at a time.
Tucker, from Richmond Hill Pharmacy, said opioids do what they are supposed to do — relieve pain — when prescribed and used properly. He agreed that those facing addiction should not be stigmatized.
“It should be classified as a chronic medical disorder, like diabetes for example, that requires treatment and management,” he said. “Opioids have their place when taken for the right reasons.”
Lt. Col. Griffin, chief medical officer at Winn Army Hospital, said the health of Bryan County is important to the military because so many stationed at Fort Stewart live here.
“The Army is really a cross-section of society,” he said. “There are some bad actors, but for the most part addiction starts with good intentions but can spiral out of control.”
Mary Fuller said the BCOPP will seek additional funding to continue the program and urged people to identify what they can do to lessen the problem through a “call to action.”
Steps include locking up medication and disposing of them properly, refusing to share medication with family and friends and asking doctors about medication they prescribe and if it is addictive.
More information is available at www.bryanprevention.com.