Your Voice MOV: Finding solutions to the opioid crisis

“They’ve tried spraying naloxone into his nostrils, but it’s had no effect. He’s not breathing. They’re running out of time.

“One of the medics takes a drill out of his bag and turns it on. It whirs like a dental drill as he pushes it into the man’s shin bone, trying to create a more direct path for the naloxone to enter the bloodstream.”

That’s an excerpt from the Pulitzer-Prize winning narrative, “Seven Days of Heroin,” published last fall by the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The scene was a Speedway restroom in Newark, Ohio, a short distance from Columbus. The man was revived and taken to the hospital where he ran away, a stent still buried in his shin.

Gruesome. Desperate.

Is that the life of the Mid-Ohio Valley today? Is the three-state region — Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky — in a hopeless spiral that requires drilling our bones to stay alive?

About 6,000 lose their lives each year to opioid overdoses in the three-state region and tens of thousands more are thought to be struggling with dependency that sometimes began with a prescription.

Facing a health crisis like no other, about 40 news organizations have united in a project to explore how to bring about solutions — and to recognize that people do in fact recover. Meetings that allow journalists to sit with people of the community and discuss the addiction crisis — and how it can be solved — have been held across Ohio. On July 15-17, the project moves to the Mid-Ohio Valley to include Marietta, Parkersburg, Belpre and surrounding communities.

Overheard in the 11 community meetings so far: There is a desperate cry for help — particularly in counties that have taken a law-and-order approach rather than dedicate resources to treatment, education and harm reduction.

There also is a new story emerging, one of hope that the crisis can be turned. In a growing number of towns and cities, organizations and local governments have begun to create solutions that encourage those struggling with addiction to find help. Some areas are experiencing success.

How? An abbreviated solutions list accompanies this story and will grow as creative, proven methods of reversing the opioid crisis become available. A more detailed list is available on the media group’s Your Voice Ohio web site.

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Oh my God

In 2015, Leigh Tami of Cincinnati was at a conference in Chicago when she received an “Oh my God” message from back home. Her city had been struck by a major outbreak of heroin overdoses caused by the synthetic additive carfentanil. So were Dayton, Akron and other major Ohio cities, but Cincinnati had a system in place that positioned it for transformation.

As director of the office of performance and data analytics for the city, Tami discussed with staff back home the information in their computers. EMS calls by the fire department are uploaded to the main computer every night, so they loaded them into mapping software that suddenly realized the scope of the crisis. They could see which neighborhoods and what time of day overdoses were likely to occur.

“There were remarkable geographic trends and times of day and week,” Tami said.

They were stunned to learn that the peak time was midweek in the afternoon. By repositioning EMS crews, they were able to save money and lives.

Other counties are attempting to provide similar information, though no one has the volume and sophistication of Cincinnati. Columbus recently unveiled mapping based on emergency room visits and found their peak time to be 6-8 p.m. on Thursdays.

Some counties aren’t so fortunate. Shortfalls in funding caused many counties to farm out their EMS runs and dispatching, depriving them of the data the community needs to pinpoint people in need. And in some states — among them Ohio and West Virginia — there is little attention to using real-time data as a tool to save lives.

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Disjointed approach

Across the region, communities are strikingly disconnected in the ways they view the epidemic and approach solutions. In Middletown near Dayton, some public officials have been more inclined to treat the epidemic as a survival of the fittest issue. There were threats to not revive overdose victims.

In community conversations sponsored by the statewide media collaborative, people in the economically distressed community resented the law-and-order philosophy. There was tension in Middletown as people recovering from addiction argued that community services were neither streamlined nor adequate, resulting in a needlessly high death rate.

In an effort to launch community problem-solving, the Your Voice Ohio collaborative is experimenting with new reporting methods that help connect journalists and citizens in the exploration of solutions.

The work begins with the community meetings, in which journalists sit with residents to learn firsthand what people want to know and the actions they think are needed. One reporter in the Youngstown area was overwhelmed as he met the people around his table — three were mothers who had lost children, and another was a young man hoping not to be a statistic. Their stories, he said, brought him much closer to the human suffering.

After attending three community meetings in southwest Ohio, Dayton Daily News reporter Katie Wedell produced a series of articles listing where to find immediate help, what recovery entails, stories of people who successfully conquered addiction, and more.

Media-community meetings have been held in the Youngstown-Warren area, Southwest Ohio — including Dayton and Cincinnati — central Ohio, and soon in the Marietta-Parkersburg and Akron-Canton areas.

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Controversial solutions

The interaction with journalists creates a new dynamic for the community — and the news media.

Because reporters find themselves asked to help identify solutions and to hold public officials accountable to those solutions, they find themselves debating the issue of advocacy journalism. How far can they go in holding policy makers accountable to known solutions that are supported in public meetings?

In Trumbull County in Northeast Ohio, the Warren Tribune Chronicle faced that question.

Trumbull County health officials in early 2017 were ready to begin a needle exchange to stop the surge in the number of hepatitis cases — a disease that can drive up health care costs. The number of new cases increased five-fold in four years as Trumbull County overdoses and deaths surged far beyond that of most other Ohio counties.

But the project was halted. The idea of an exchange is “absurd,” county prosecutor Dennis Watkins said, arguing that it facilitates the use of illegal drugs.

Yet in reporting on solutions, the Warren reporter learned that many Ohio counties see differently and thus have needle exchanges. More importantly, those counties saw the rate of Hepatitis C infection drop with no statistical evidence that drug use increased. Lives were saved and the state was spared perhaps $100,000 a year in Hepatitis C treatment for each case.

West Virginia is no different, with some counties resisting needle exchanges.

Vice President Mike Pence is among those who has changed his mind.

As a congressman, he supported legislation banning use of federal money for needle exchanges, and as governor of Indiana — a state that outlawed exchanges — he remained steadfast in his opposition, until 2015.

A surge in new HIV cases beginning in late 2014 in Indiana’s rural Scott County near the Ohio River was alarming because of the rapid spread and potential long-term costs. Pence asked for advice from health experts and the local sheriff.

Armed with the convincing data showing the effectiveness, Pence declared a state of emergency in Scott County, allowed for needle exchanges, and the number of new HIV cases immediately tumbled.

So what should the reporter do? If the Trumbull County prosecutor blocks the program, does the story end there? Or should the reporter write aggressively about other successful needle exchanges and pleas from people struggling with addiction and the health department that a needle exchange be offered?

What do you think reporters should do? There is an opportunity to express opinions on the crisis and news coverage at meetings in the Mid-Ohio Valley July 15-17. A reservation process to join the conversations accompanies this story.

Meanwhile, share your questions about the addiction epidemic and your expectations for journalists. Questions and thoughts can be sent to heroin@yourvoiceohio.org or editorial@newsandsentinel.com.

Doug Oplinger, a reporter and editor at the Akron Beacon Journal for 46 years, directs the Your Voice Ohio statewide media project and can be contacted at doplinger@yourvoiceohio.org

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Getting Involved With the Your Voice Project

News outlets in the Mid-Ohio Valley are working with the Your Voice Ohio project to listen to local residents discuss the addiction crisis so that we can better represent your thoughts and solutions in our reporting.

At the sessions, residents will be asked to describe the addiction crisis in their community, what they think are the causes and what they think are solutions.

If you wish to participate, please sign up through one of the following links:

* Parkersburg — 1:30-3:30 p.m. Sunday July 15, Boys and Girls Club of Parkersburg, 1200 Mary St, Parkersburg, WV 26101. https://www.facebook.com/events/144682839731116/

* Belpre — 6-8 p.m. Monday July 16, Belpre Masonic Lodge #609, 1411 Putnam Howe Dr, Belpre, OH 45714. https://www.facebook.com/events/217127772412443/

* Marietta — 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, July 17, Washington County Fairgrounds clubhouse, 922 Front Street, Marietta, Ohio 45750. https://www.facebook.com/events/1030670543748486

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