If you didn’t believe it before that Tooele County has a growing opioid addiction problem among its 65,000 citizens, maybe last Thursday’s front-page story about the predicament is the final wake up for all of us to get out of denial.
And help do something about it.
In the story, “Prevalent drug abuse problem results in free syringe service,” we learned that the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition, a nonprofit organization based in Salt Lake City, started a free home delivery syringe exchange program last December in Tooele City.
Its purpose is to help mitigate the spread of disease among addicts, like HIV or Hepatitis C, by exchanging used syringes for new ones. It also encourages persons who are using the service to seek treatment for their addiction.
After reading the story, you might have asked, “Why Tooele City? Aren’t needle exchange programs found only in larger cities?”
According to Mindy Vincent, executive director of UHRC, the answer is simple: UHRC’s mission is to prevent the spread of disease, get people to treatment, and because “Tooele has been known for a high amount of drug use.”
Just how excessive is that amount? At a local opioid awareness seminar held in February, officials said Tooele County ranks fourth in the state for opioid addiction, Mountain West Medical Center treated over 200 patients for opioid overdose in 2015, and Tooele City is ranked fourth in the state for opioid overdoses.
And according to the Utah Department of Health, 127 Utahns died in 2015 from illicit opioid overdoses such as heroin. Eight of those deaths occurred in Tooele County.
Those numbers may not fully resonate on one’s conscience — until you meet Jenifer Dove-Cornish, who conducts the syringe exchange program every Tuesday in Tooele City.
“Right now I’m working with about 50-60 people in Tooele; [but] I get new clients every week,” she said.
Opioids include both legal and illegal drugs. Fentanyl, codeine and morphine are commonly known legal drugs. For illegal drugs, heroin tops the list. What makes them so popular, according to the Utah Department of Health, is their capacity to trigger a release of chemicals in the brain that reduce the perception of pain. The brain eventually begins to demand the unnatural levels to dull pain and feel pleasure.
Addiction is characterized by compulsive use despite harmful consequences. The craving to get high or avoid withdrawal leads to drug abuse, and taking higher or more frequent doses than prescribed. Ultimately, people may turn to crime or illicit drugs, like heroin, to feed their addiction. An overdose can cause a person to stop breathing and die.
A local health official said one reason why opiates have such a stronghold in Tooele County is few citizens want to deal with such a hushed and ugly subject. But if Dove-Cornish has her way, the silence about opioid addiction in the county will end soon.
“I want to work to change the way we isolate and exclude addicts,” she said. “The more we positively support everyone, including addicts, the better recovery outcomes we will have.”
Her work to make that change should be joined by a community with the same goal.