Town hall meeting held on local opioid crisis

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By Denise Dunbar | ddunbar@alextimes.com

A town hall titled “A community conversation: Heroin & other opioids” took place Feb. 28 at the Minnie Howard Campus of T.C. Williams High School.

 The purpose of the gathering was to bring together leaders from various city institutions dealing with the drug crisis and to allow residents to ask questions.

Allen Lomax, who chairs the Alexandria Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition, moderated the session. In addition to panelists from various city departments, Nick Yacoub, a former drug user in long-term recovery and member of the Fairfax County Social Services Board, also spoke.

 Dr. Steve Haering, director of the Alexandria Health Department, said that his department is offering “revive training.”

“People are trained to recognize what an opioid overdose looks like and what to do with Naloxone to keep the person alive until medical help arrives,” Haering said.

Dr. Martin Brown, head of Emergency Services at Inova Alexandria Hospital, discussed alternatives to opioids for treating pain.

 “Our ER is [sometimes] using laughing gas for pain instead of opioids,” Brown said. “… Also local anesthetics. A combination of ibuprofen and Tylenol is very effective for pain. Topical agents like topical lidocaine is used for back pain. … We want to be judicious in our use of opioids, but we aren’t going to stop using them.”

Interim ACPS Superintendent Dr. Lois Berlin said ACPS hired a drug counselor for the current school year. 

“That has been a big step for us in addressing the issues that face some of our students,” Berlin said. 

Alexandria Police Chief Michael Brown said his department is trying to track overdoses by using a new mapping product.

“[With this] we can get a sense of what is transpiring within the community. … We are not going to be able to arrest our way out of this issue. The intervention has to happen,” Brown said.

Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter discussed the need for a drug court in Alexandria.

 “It’s in process and hopefully will be there in six months or so,” Porter said. “… Treatment court is probably a better moniker. It’s a very intensive attempt to help someone suffering from substance abuse disorder to get on a treatment program and stay on it.”

Susan Tatum from the Alexandria Department of Community and Human Services, who heads the city’s addiction treatment efforts, said, “Treatment works. We see it all the time.”

Members of the audience asked questions ranging from, “Is addiction a brain disease?” to “Does giving out Narcan encourage people to keep using drugs?” Haering responded to the latter question with an emphatic, “No, it keeps them alive.”

The city also launched a website on Feb. 28 intended to serve as a community resource for various aspects of the opioid crisis. It can be accessed at www.alexandriava.gov/opioids.

 The public is invited to an April 9 meeting of the city’s Opioid Work Group, at which the public will be invited to give feedback on strategies and approaches being developed by the work group. The meeting will take place at 6 p.m. with its location to be determined.

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