Surgeon general praises East Tennessee for tackling opioid problem

Robert Houk • Jan 31, 2020 at 9:00 AM

The surgeon general of the United States said Thursday the country is making strides in reducing its harmful use of opioids, but he believes more should be done to promote prevention, offer rehabilitation and address the stigma often attached to drug addition.

Dr. Jerome Adams, who has served as the nation’s chief public health official since 2017, told area law enforcement, health and business leaders they “are leading the way” in tackling drug addiction as a chronic illness.

“You are doing a hell of a job in East Tennessee,” Adams said during a roundtable discussion on opioid abuse hosted by U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Johnson City, at the East Tennessee State University’s campus on the grounds of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Mountain Home.

Adams said while it’s often “the bad news that make the headlines,” he said public officials must do more to spread the word about the successes they’ve seen in the battling drug addiction. He noted that life expectancy rates in the United States are climbing, while deaths from overdoses are decreasing.

He attributed that change to making naloxone available to public safety officers and others to treat opioid overdoses.

“We have better health outcomes as result of better partnerships,” Adams said.

The surgeon general said the ”opioid epidemic has spared no one,” including his own family.  Adams said his brother is currently serving time in prison for a crime he committed as a result of his addiction. 

He said overcoming the stigma associated with drug addiction is a particular problem in rural communities. Adams said more money needs to be spent “downstream” in the form of sustainable prevention programs.

Adams also noted that “jobs and housing” are two key components to reducing recidivism among former addicts.

“We have more unfilled jobs in this nation than people to fill them,” Adams said.

Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of Tennessee’s Department of Health, said the state recorded 1,818 overdose deaths in the past year. She also noted Tennessee saw its morphine-equivalent prescriptions drop by 43% during the same period.

She said that while opioid abuse is on the decline in the state, the use of methamphetamines is on the rise again.

“Meth is off the chain right now,” T.J. Jordan, the assistant director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, said during the panel discussion.

Jordan said today’s methamphetamine comes from Mexico instead of being manufactured in the local clandestine labs that plagued law enforcement a few years ago.

Barry Staubus, attorney general of the 2nd Judicial District, said drug addiction has created a need for additional funding for the courts and law enforcement, particularly for rehabilitation programs, vocational training and mental health services in local jails.

Cocke County Sheriff Armando Fontes said county jails have become “the first line of mental health care” in the United States. That is a function Fontes said most jails were never designed to do.

“If you take all of a community’s worst problems and put them into one place, you have a nightmare,” Fontes said.

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