President Donald Trump’s decision Thursday to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency would increase funding for treatment programs and bring much-needed attention to the crisis that’s killed hundreds of Georgians in the past two years, state officials say.
Advocated by a White House commission on opioids, the emergency declaration is expected to send more federal dollars to states to address the crisis, including improving access to medications that reverse overdoses.
“This is something that (Trump) can be applauded for,” said Bibb County Sheriff David Davis, who has seen the effects of the opioid crisis firsthand.
In his middle Georgia community, five people died and more than two dozen others overdosed on opioids within a matter of days earlier this summer.
“Those of us in law enforcement and public health have realized that this is on the way to becoming a national crisis,” Davis said.
Georgia researchers, lawmakers and law enforcement officials say increased funding because of the national emergency designation would make more treatment options available.
“Each county has different needs, but each county is still facing an epidemic where people die,” said Renee Unterman, a Republican state senator from Buford who has sponsored legislation combating the opioid crisis.
Unterman said her office received many calls in the last few days from residents disappointed that Trump hadn’t yet declared a national emergency. Thursday’s announcement, during which Trump said he is drafting paperwork to formally declare a national emergency, is “really exciting,” Unterman said.
The White House commission said a national emergency declaration would make Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, a former Georgia congressman, more likely to negotiate for lower prices of nalaxone for government agencies. Nalaxone, also known as Narcan, is a medication that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.
“Narcan is very expensive; training people in its proper use is expensive,” said Hannah Cooper, an Emory University professor who has done research on drugs and the opioid crisis. “Drug treatment is expensive up front, but it actually is cheaper in the long run.”
Cooper said anyone who could be a potential witness to an overdose — such as friends and family members of people who misuse opioids — should have easy access to Narcan, and increased federal funding could help achieve this.
Georgia could also benefit from increased on-demand treatment sites across the state, so that “people who want treatment actually can access treatment,” she said.
“We need an all-hands-on-deck approach right now,” Cooper said, adding that she was “very pleased” to hear of Trump’s announcement.
More than 170 people in Georgia have died of an opioid overdose so far this year, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. In 2016, more than 534 died from opioids.
The five people who died in middle Georgia reportedly overdosed on counterfeit pills sold on the streets as Percocet that contained high amounts of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. More than 30 others others were sent to the hospital.
“It was a wake-up call to how dangerous these drugs are,” said Davis, the Bibb County sheriff. “It just put a spotlight on that problem. We had seen an issue with opioids and particularly heroin overdoses for a while; probably for a year or so we had seen a uptick.”
Unterman said the cluster of overdoses in middle Georgia was “like having a trainwreck.”
She has noticed an increase in public interest in solving the crisis, however. Forums focused on education and prevention, such as a recent one in Gwinnett County, have drawn hundreds of attendees, she said.
“Anything we can do to raise the education and prevention and to erase the stigma of it” is important, she said.
The Georgia Composite Medical Board ruled Thursday that every state doctor must get training on how to properly prescribe opioids, and a law signed by Gov. Nathan Deal last year increased funding for expanded access to Narcan. Deal has not declared a state of emergency regarding the opioid epidemic, unlike his counterparts in Massachusetts, Maryland, Alaska, Arizona, Virginia and Florida.
Jonathan Connell, the president of the Opioid Treatment Providers of Georgia, said a formal national declaration does not make a huge difference in what Georgia is doing to address the crisis.
Connell said funding, however, can have a big impact. An $11.7 million grant issued to Georgia to fight the opioid crisis, which was announced in April, was a big step in the right direction, he said.
“I’ve been in the field for 20 years, and we haven’t seen this type of money flow into the state to address the issue,” he said. “We’re very excited that the ball has not been dropped.”
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