Fulton County government is taking steps to reduce opioid deaths

Dec 29, 2017
Fulton County Commission Vice Chairman Bob Ellis wants to reduce opioid deaths in the county. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM AJC FILE PHOTO

In an attempt to curb the number of people affected by opioid addiction in Fulton County, the local government is taking a number of steps to try to reduce access to drugs and help save lives.

There’s been an expansion of drug drop boxes, a lawsuit filed targeting drug manufacturers and a plan to start a crisis text line at some local schools. Additionally, the county is paying for officers to carry a drug that acts as an antidote to opiate overdoses and encouraging Fulton’s accountability courts to work with people who are dealing with opioid addiction.

Officials said the drugs are responsible for the addiction and death of hundreds in the county.

“This thing is so multifaceted,” said Bob Ellis, the vice chairman of the Fulton County Commission. “You’ve got to take a ton of steps to try to drive it down.”

Opioid addiction, and reducing its impact, have become Ellis’ pet project.

Ellis said it was important to him, in a year of increasing awareness about drug deaths, to influence those areas in which local government could make a difference.

While 2017 numbers were not available in late December, the county recorded 154 opioid-related deaths in 2016, more than any other county in the state. In 2015, 104 people died after taking opioids. There had been 61 deaths by mid-October, and District Attorney Paul Howard said then that Narcan, a drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose, had been administered 340 times in the last 12 months.

The county has expanded the presence of drug drop boxes, which look like library book returns. While it was not clear what percentage of the drugs were opiates, more than 642 lbs. of drugs were collected as 10 Fulton County drug boxes through the end of September. That’s compared to 386 lbs. in 2016 and 268 lbs. in 2015.

The drug boxes, which Ellis hopes will help reduce the available supply of pills, will continue to proliferate in the county. There are 23 total in Fulton, including the 10 on county land. They are north, south and downtown. Drug takeback days have been popular in some cities. Sgt. Markquell Daniel, with the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office, said in a statement that the program lets people “dispose of outdated prescription and over-the-counter medicines in an effective, efficient, secure and environmentally friendly way.”

Drug deaths now exceed suicides, vehicle crash fatalities in US. 👆 Click to zoom.

Ellis said he’s hopeful that eliminating access to some drugs could save lives.

“If you reduce the supply, you reduce the opportunity for someone to take it and become addicted,” he said. “I do feel like this is meaningful.”

The boxes are just one piece of a several-pronged approach Fulton County is taking to try to quell the effects of the opioid crisis locally.

“It’s a grind. This is a major epidemic,” Ellis said. “It’s going to require a lot of persistence from all of us. There are going to be more deaths, unfortunately.”

But Ellis, and his Fulton County colleagues, want to do what they can to stop them.

Ellis said he doesn’t have a personal connection to the crisis, as many do. But he has, time and again, heard personal stories from constituents or others whose loved ones are dealing with opioid addiction. After attending several community forums, he said, he got frustrated with the feeling that little action was being taken, and wanted to spearhead some programs where the county government had some sway.

The crisis text line, called Text A Tip, will be initially funded with a $29,000 grant from the Fulton-DeKalb Hospital Authority, and will provide anonymous 24-hour access to mental health professionals. It launches at Cambridge, Milton, Roswell, Westlake and Langston Hughes high schools in January.

The county’s lawsuit, filed in October, joined a wave of city, county and state governments that aim to change the drug industry’s behavior, Ellis said. It accuses drug manufacturers, distributors and others of being a public nuisance, of fraud for marketing opioids as solutions to chronic pain and of negligence in not reporting suspicious orders. Since 2007, no distributor refused to ship opioids to any Fulton County pharmacy, even as there was “an alarming and suspicious rise in the ordering of opioid pain medications by retailers throughout Fulton County.”

OxyContin pills. Fulton County is suing the maker of OxyContin and other drug manufacturers. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File) Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Ellis hopes the action will help make doctors more aware of their prescribing practices, as well as encourage patients to ask more questions when they are prescribed opioids. Since Fulton filed, DeKalb and other counties have followed suit.

Alone, none of those actions will stop a crisis that nationally took more than 42,000 lives in 2016, leading to the second year in a row of reduced lifespans in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Ellis hopes any steps he and government can take will make a difference.In the future, he said, he’d like to see the county help pay for treatment options like a drug-assisted one at Grady Memorial Hospital.

Ellis said he feels “very positive” about the steps the county has taken. But the problem, still, has continued to grow.

“It’s disheartening when you’re pushing for something, and people still experience the negative impacts of the crisis hitting their families,” he said. “I’ve been encouraged about what we’ve been able to do to date. …None of this is meant to be a single solution. It needs to be tackled from a lot of different angles.”

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