Johnston County residents weigh in on opioid settlement plan

A social worker who lost her brother to suicide during active addiction.

A family whose daughter died of a fentanyl overdose after cheerleading led to a drug habit.

A mother who had just driven her son to the airport to start addiction treatment for the fifth time.

These voices were among the community members who spoke at a meeting of the Johnston County Opioid Task Force on Tuesday.

Between now and 2038, Johnston County will receive over $8 million in national opioid settlement funding. As the country public health department creates a spending plan, it’s bringing those facing addiction, and their loved ones, to the table.

NC suspected overdose deaths

To start spending settlement dollars immediately, North Carolina counties must work within a list of strategies proven to have a high impact on abating opioid use.

Any county that chooses these pre-approved goals will undergo a similar brainstorming process. Wake County will hold its own public meeting Aug. 2.

Johnston County established an opioid task force in 2017 as many residents faced addiction. However, overdoses and deaths continue to climb, especially as fentanyl becomes more present in heroin sales.

The state reported this week there were 326 suspected overdose deaths in June, compared to 288 in June 2021. All told, suspected overdose deaths were up 9% between this January and June compared to the same period last year.

In Johnston County, emergency medical service personnel administered the overdose-reversal drug Naloxone to 198 residents last year. They’re already up to 172 doses since January.

Now, county commissioners are looking at where the shortlist strategies overlap with existing programs like Naloxone distribution, and where resources need to be built from scratch.

The county’s plan would put $35,000 a year toward sponsoring short-term detox programs for 100 residents per year, said health department director Marilyn Pearson.

It would also place 5,000 doses of naloxone — also known by the brand name Narcan — in schools, libraries, fire stations and other community centers.

Long-term goals would include assembling a post-overdose medical response team and training three to five peer support workers a year, which could also provide jobs for those recovering from addiction.

“We’re going to meet people where they are,” Pearson said, “and then try to figure out, over the long term, what we can do to help people in Johnston County.”

Long-term rehabilitation

Residents largely agreed with the county’s priority list. However, many wanted more money for new long-term treatment options.

Johnston County does not have a long-term rehabilitation facility for recovering opioid users.

Casey White, whose brother killed himself during active opioid addiction, said not having such a center has affected her peers “from infancy all the way to adulthood.”

When an opioid user chooses to seek out a rehab program, it’s important to keep that momentum by finding one right away, said Adam Denning, director of Twelve Stones, a faith-based recovery group in Angier.

Some faith-based groups, including Recovery Alive!, already provide housing and vocational training to Johnston County residents recovering from addiction.

But for the most part, getting long-term care means going outside the county, and sometimes waiting three or four days for intake paperwork.

“When someone is ready, they’re ready right then, and we need to act on that,” said JoCo Angels vice president Danette Jernigan.

This means that people coming out of a detoxification period often have nowhere to go, especially when they’re uninsured, Jernigan said.

Recovery housing is also a critical resource for recovering individuals who are formerly incarcerated, said White. As the only member of her family who has never been arrested, she said she’s seen relatives leave prison and falter without a safety net.

“The number of individuals who are in this county who have nowhere to go once they are released from prison is astronomical,” White said. “So they are going back to the same individuals who they used with, and now they’re back in that very same cycle.”

Early Intervention

Pearson said the county plans to emphasize more early-intervention strategies. Residents were on board but said to be effective, prevention programs must target young people and cooperate with schools.

Many faith-based recovery organizations around Johnston County host opioid addiction support groups. One, at Recovery Alive!, gives kids and teens a space to talk about their home life.

Community members also want to destigmatize recovery for young users and to treat underlying mental health issues.

Jernigan encouraged her daughter to attend support groups when she was facing a Xanax addiction that turned into a heroin addiction. Dakota Jernigan, who died of a fentanyl overdose in 2019, had told her mother she felt alienated at meetings.

“It was just a bunch of old men,” Jernigan recalled her daughter saying.

Jernigan and several other community members discussed training teachers to support students who are battling addiction, or whose families are touched by addiction.

Opioid use is growing at South Johnston and West Johnston high schools, said JoCo Angels co-president Kelley Blas.

“If we think that this addiction stuff starts in high school and after, it’s not,” said Jernigan.

Carol Johnson, whose daughter was a cheerleader before she overdosed, said current early intervention supports don’t kick in until young people are actively using opioids.

Like Dakota Jernigan, Johnson said her daughter seemed extremely well-adjusted, and her school sports seemed like a wholesome environment, before her addiction became clear.

The county’s priority framework dedicates too many resources toward figuring out how to help recovering addicts, Johnson said. Instead, she urged the county to double down on preventing new opioid use in vulnerable populations.

“We just need to prevent it from happening to begin with,” Johnson told The News & Observer after the meeting. “Parents, teachers, community members, are all turning a blind eye into it and waiting for something to happen.”

What’s next

Members of the public health department will compile Tuesday’s feedback and include it in the final draft of their spending plan. County commissioners will vote on the plan at an upcoming meeting.

Wake County’s public feedback meeting will be held at the Wake County Commons Building, 4011 Carya Drive, from 11 am to 2 pm Tuesday, Aug. 2. Residents can attend virtually or in person and can sign up online at www.wakegov.com/national-opioid-settlement

This story was originally published July 20, 2022 9:28 AM.

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