Loudoun County Chair and VACo Board of Directors member Phyllis J. Randall spoke November 13 at a Congressional briefing organized by the National Association of City and County Health Officials, the National Association of Counties, and the U. S. Conference of Mayors. The event, “Tackling the Opioid Epidemic and its Hidden Casualties: Local Health Departments on the Front Lines,” offered an opportunity for local elected officials and staff to provide information to Congress about the local experience of the opioid epidemic and to offer recommendations for how Congress might assist states and localities in addressing this serious national problem.
Chair Randall urged caution in focusing too much on individual drugs, noting that the underlying problem is substance dependency, which has remained constant through several previous drug epidemics, whether the drugs abused were cocaine, methamphetamines, or heroin. She noted that despite Loudoun County’s many strengths, it suffers from substance abuse like many other jurisdictions across the nation.
In response, Loudoun County has provided naloxone to its first responders and worked with the Virginia Department of Health to train residents in the administration of naloxone, as well as in identifying the signs of substance abuse. In an effort to reduce the stigma surrounding substance dependency, Loudoun County has convened what Randall called “courageous community conversations,” which included representatives from the County, public safety, nonprofits and the faith community, health providers, and, importantly, members of the community struggling with addiction and their families – voices which are often not included in these discussions, Randall pointed out. She urged attendees to follow the President’s declaration of the opioid epidemic as a public health emergency with a commitment of more federal resources to the problem. She pointed to past anti-smoking campaigns as an example of how federal funding could be used to address the problem in a comprehensive way.
Other panelists at the briefing were Dr. Michael Kilkenny, Director of the Cabell-Huntington Department of Health in West Virginia and Mayor Lydia Mihalik of Findlay, Ohio. Dr. Kilkenny discussed local efforts in Cabell County and Huntington, including distribution of naloxone in the community and the establishment of the state’s first syringe exchange program, a harm-reduction measure that combats the spread of communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis C that can be spread by contaminated needles. He encouraged federal assistance to localities to support the purchase of naloxone, the cost of which has risen significantly in recent years, as well as assistance in negotiating more favorable pricing. Mayor Mihalik discussed her work with a bipartisan coalition of Ohio mayors to share best practices and improve communication with state officials.
Panelists agreed during the question-and-answer period that trauma-informed care is essential to dealing with the far-reaching effects of the epidemic, from the strain on first responders to the effects on children who must be removed from their parents’ care. Mayor Mihalik noted that teachers in her city have been trained in trauma-informed practices so that they are prepared to meet the needs of students who have experienced situations such as watching a parent overdose, for example.
VACo Contact: Katie Boyle