Forum to focus on local drug crisis, public health effort to reduce harm

by Kate Shunney

A public forum set for this Saturday, June 15 at Berkeley Springs High School will dig deep down into the current state of opioid drug use in Morgan County and what steps are needed to reduce the damage it has on the community.

Organizers are hoping everyone affected by drug addiction, those interest in public health and anyone with questions about overdoses and recovery will attend.

“We want the community to get educated about what’s going on, where we are and what we need to do,” said Angela Gray, RN, of the Berkeley-Morgan County Board of Health.

Gray runs a Harm Reduction Program at the Berkeley County Health Department in Martinsburg, is helping develop a rural response pilot program for the State of West Virginia and is a nationally-recognized leader in public health aspects of the opioid addiction and overdose crisis.

Gray will be one of four speakers at the forum, which begins at 1 p.m. on Saturday and runs through 4:30 p.m. at Berkeley Springs High School.

Topics at the forum include a look at substance abuse disorder, discussion of medically-assisted treatment for drug addiction and the need for harm reduction programs in the state.

Other speakers include Jan Nieves, Dr. Brandt Williamson and Andrea Wright, all medical professionals working in the field of substance abuse disorder and public health.

Gray said high rates of opioid addiction and use in West Virginia have already driven up cases of Hepatitis and HIV to dangerous levels. These are diseases easily spread through needle sharing.

She said there are 150,000 self-reported IV drug users in West Virginia. There’s no way to know the real number.

“The numbers are too big. We’re already over the thresholds for everything when you determine if we’re in an epidemic – Hepatitis C, overdoses, the numbers of babies being born drug dependent,” said Gray.

Harm reduction programs are a necessity in Morgan County, said Gray.

“We have over two decades of evidence to show it works,” she said.

Harm reduction programs have been controversial in some places because they include free needle exchanges for active drug users, access to sterile water for drug mixing, condoms and other supplies. Programs also offer disease testing, vaccinations, basic health services and peer recovery staff to help addicts who want to stop using.

“Whether they have a clean needle or not, they’ll use. They’ll use water out of a public toilet to mix their drugs. What we’re doing is to help stop the spread of communicable disease,” said Gray.

Gray said that program in Berkeley County has led 64 people to recovery from addiction. Another 294 people didn’t die from a drug overdose because they used Narcan from the program.

Jennifer Schetrompf works with Gray in the Berkeley County harm reduction program. Both are Morgan County natives and live in the county.

For Schetrompf, part of the purpose of the forum is to remove the stigma of talking about active addiction, recovery and its effects. She helps run the Life or Drugs Tri-State Support Group and Team Hope, a support group for teens affected by the opioid and drug crisis.

She said people still debate whether drug addiction is a legitimate mental health disorder, and can be stuck in a particular mindset about what an addict looks like.

“Everybody’s still envisioning the back alley drug addict,” said Schetrompf. What she knows first hand is that many active drug users work regular jobs, attend church, are “normal” neighbors.

Proposed programs can reduce the harm of drug use, stem the spread of disease, all while connecting users to tools for recovery.

Gray hopes the forum will clear up misconceptions about drug use and users, about addiction and what can help.

“This is a launch to get educated and see where we can work together. It’s up to us where we’re going to be 10 to 15 years from now, based on the actions we take today,” she said.

The Community Opioid Crisis & Harm Reduction Forum will be held this Saturday, June 15 from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Berkeley Springs High School Auditorium.