DOUGHERTY CO., GA (WALB) - Just a few weeks ago President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national emergency. Now people in Dougherty County are taking steps to tackle the problem in South Georgia.
It started with a task force compiled of people from Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, law enforcement and community health partners.
On Wednesday, the task force met at Phoebe with state lawmakers.
"If we are here for 19 minutes, there is somebody who dies from an overdose," Emergency Medicine Dr.Wael Azer said to a room full of Dougherty County leaders as he explained how much of a crisis the opioid overdose is.
The number of opioid overdoses is growing rapidly. In Georgia, opioid overdoses took the lives of 900 people in 2015 alone.
But State Senator and Head of Health and Human Service Committee Renee Unterman is trying to tackle the problem.
"On the issue of opioids we have worked very aggressively," said Unterman.
On Wednesday, she and other state legislatures met with local leaders who are dealing with the crisis every day.
"I wanted to make sure what I'm doing and thinking at the capital in Atlanta is cohesive with what is going on in rural Georgia and bringing the message of what can we do for you," said Unterman.
During a near two hour presentation and discussion, leaders agreed that some of the most important aspects needed to fight the problem are funding and education.
Locally, the crisis is depleting the funds of our first responders.
Dougherty County EMS Director Sam Allen told Unterman his team is using the Narcan, a drug used to counteract an overdose, more often because they are finding people who have overdosed.
He said in the past 12 months Dougherty County EMS used 63 vials of Narcan.
But Narcan is not cheap. This year the department spent $2,600 on the drug.
Both Allen and Dougherty County Sheriff Kevin Sproul expressed their concerns about the financial impact the use of Narcan is having.
Unterman agreed state assistance would be helpful.
"This is a statewide epidemic," explained Unterman. "There needs to be state assistance with dollars,"
Unterman said she will bring the financial concerns before the general assembly.
In the meantime educating the public about the opioid epidemic is next on the task force's agenda.
"This is a major issue. People are dying from this. And the only way you can get the word out is to get out there and beat the bushes," said Allen.
Allen thinks the task force should go into schools and colleges to talk about the crisis.
Senator Unterman feels the education needs to expand beyond Dougherty County.
"I think the next step is collaboration in a regional footprint so you have more than one county. This is an epidemic facing the whole state and Southwest Georgia needs to pull together and I have full confidence that they will," said Unterman.
Phoebe officials said Wednesday they will take the lead role in educating all of the counties their hospital serves.
"I don't see anything that we could do any better than stepping up to the plate here and taking the lead and working with our partners," said Phoebe Manager of Security Gary Rice. "Because we are in the healthcare business and this epidemic affects our health care."
State leaders said they will work to bring experts to South Georgia who can lead educational forums for both the public and those who work in the health community.
Unterman also discussed ways metro-Atlanta areas are working to address the crisis.
One of the areas is within the jails.
In Cobb County, the jail is piloting a new program. It now has a Community Service Board for behavioral health within the jails.
Unterman said she thinks Dougherty County may be another place to pilot the program.
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