Dr. Gale Newel, whom the San Benito County Board of Supervisors appointed as the public health officer for Health & Human Services Agency earlier in the year, gave an informational report Aug. 22 about local opioid addiction and said she plans to form a countywide opioid taskforce.
In 2015, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) stated that drug overdose deaths linked to opioids have become an epidemic, and San Benito County has not escaped it, she noted. In 2016, the director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) called for urgent action, declaring, “America is awash with opioids.” The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared opioids its “biggest crises.” And on Aug. 10, President Donald Trump declared the country’s opioid crisis a national emergency.
Newel said opioid addiction knows no boundaries and includes the rich and poor, young and old, male and female, and every social economic group. She said the consequences are heartbreaking and personal. Before going further with her presentation, she told the board she would put aside her public health officer hat for a moment in order to speak to them as a mother.
“Last September, I lost my oldest child to an opioid overdose,” she said. Her voice broke slightly as she spoke of her son, who was 38 years old and a dentist in Santa Cruz. He was a brilliant musician and artist, who lived at home with his parents. “With a two-physician household, none of us knew he was using drugs of any kind.”
She told how her younger son found his brother and tried to resuscitate him and then had to watch helplessly as paramedics were unsuccessful in reviving him. Only after looking through journals her son left behind did they discover his desperate journey through addiction, beginning by prescribing drugs for himself all the way down until he was trying to score heroin on the streets. She said his autopsy declared that he died from an overdose of opioids and fentanyl.
“The circumstances of my son’s death play out over and over again in this country, once every 10 minutes,” she said. “Deaths by opioids have quadrupled since 1999, and are the leading cause of injuries and death in the U.S., and the leading cause of death overall in people under 50 years of age.”
Newel said the opioid epidemic affects entire communities, presenting a grim challenge to healthcare providers, law enforcement, and society in general. She said America uses 80 percent of the global supply of illegal opioids and deaths exceeded 59,000 in 2016, the largest jump in drug-related deaths ever in the U.S. The problem has continued to grow in 2017, she said.
When Newel turned her focus to San Benito County, she showed a graph that placed the county above the much more populated Santa Clara County in opioid deaths.
“When I started my work here as the health officer in February, I had no agenda to address this problem,” she said. “I was still very raw from my own personal loss. But as I toured Hazel Hawkins Hospital, my very first week, the topic came up again and again as a local issue. The chair of the emergency department told me about the narcotics seekers disrupting the flow of care in the emergency department to the great detriment of the other patients.”
She reminded the board of the armed robberies at four of the five pharmacies in Hollister. Each time, she said, the demand was for controlled substances rather than money. Authorities told her about the increase of heroine on the Hollister’s streets and at the schools. The pharmacy workgroup told her about unsafe prescribing practices by the county’s physicians. And recently, a 35-year-old man died at the hospital from an opioid overdose.
The county rate of per capita deaths from opioids is above the state’s, as well as neighboring counties. There were 29 deaths in the county during the past 10 years, and the rate continues to climb. Opioid prescribed between 2008 and 2015 in the county exceeded both the state and surrounding counties.
“San Benito County’s opioid prescription rate has increased significantly over the past 10 years,” Newel said, adding that the county can start reducing it by adopting safe prescribing practices. “But opioid overuse is a multi-faceted problem that calls for strong partnerships to combat it. Beyond public health, hospitals, and healthcare providers, we need pharmacies, law enforcement, behavioral health, and substance abuse experts involved.”
Newel said the faith communities, education, businesses and agriculture need to become involved, as well, to join community members and those who have lost loved ones to drug overdoses.
“We need to approach it as we would any other epidemic,” she cautioned. “Prevention, containment and treatment. Treating it as simply a moral or criminal issue will not work. We plan to address opioid overuse issues in San Benito County through a collaborative approach. We want it to be transdisciplinary, countywide and a taskforce providing input on a future direction.”
Many key leaders in the county have agreed to participate, she noted. The Santa Clara and Monterey opioid working groups have pledged their support. Janus, a medically assisted treatment program in Santa Cruz County recently received a federal grant to set up treatment programs in neighboring counties, including San Benito County.
Newel said a number of strategies have already been implemented, including establishing a working pharmacy group. The county has received a state grant for Novoxone to counteract the effects of opioids in the field. Training and distribution to first responders has already begun.
“Additional areas where we plan to work and the taskforce may address will be education of the public, prescriber and pharmacy guidelines and education, additional Novoxone training, and disposal of controlled substances,” she said.
Supervisor Anthony Botelho commented that he wished the county had started sooner to address the issue.
“Getting started is the main thing and I think the community needs to embrace this taskforce and go to work with it,” he said. “Hopefully, we can make a difference in a number of lives.”