U.S. Surgeon General discusses opioid epidemic, suggests to humanize those who suffer from addiction


JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Newly released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals drug overdose deaths in the United States have dropped for the first time, since 1990.

Numbers from the Tennessee Department of Health, show more than 1,800 Tennesseans died from drug overdoses in 2018. That was up from 2017.

The United States Surgeon General, Dr. Jerome Adams, joined local health and political leaders in a round-table discussion about methods to combat the opioid epidemic. He was joined by Congressman Phil Roe and Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner, Dr. Lisa Piercey.

As the number of overdose deaths continue to rise, they fear this will only get worse if they do not approach it differently.

The discussion focused on ending addiction in America and killing the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

Dr. Adams said, in order to end addiction in America, we must first learn to humanize people suffering from substance abuse disorders.

“We need to help people understand that addiction is a desease, not a moral failing. No one woke up this morning and said, ‘I want to become addicted to heroin today,” Dr. Adams said.

Stigma kills more people than heroin and cigarettes and that substance abuse goes hand-in-hand with mental health, according to Dr. Adams.

“We know, and we heard from the sheriff – the number one health provider in the state of Tennessee is our jail system,” Dr. Adams explained in a question and answer forum, following the discussion. “We need to be sure that we’re providing the treatments in the places where people are, and they’re trying to do that here in Tennessee and Congressman Roe highlighted that, in one of the things he’s passionate about doing.”

Congressman Phil Roe said, “If you have a mental health disorder, you get thrown out of the housing unit, end up in the ER, go back, you get thrown out and end up in jail. Then, you have nowhere to go but on the street. That’s what happened to people. We have to stop that. We’re better than that as a country.”

He said there is a shortage of pyschiatric beds across the country.

Representative Roe said, “In this country, we have less than 50,000 in-patient beds. We have nowhere, once we get to that point, when we are downstream, to go treat anyone. Our law enforcement people are begging for it. Our medical people are begging for it.”

He said there is funding, but the state will have to step up.

“I looked at funding. We’re already paying for this. The problem is we’re paying in the wrong way. We’re paying when someone’s incarcerated. I spoke with the police chief: $45 a day, per female or person which stays in the jail right down near Johnson City. Wouldn’t it be much better if they were out working at a job, here in Johnson City or wherever their home may be in the state,” Representative Roe said. “The bill is being paid now. We’re just paying on the incarcerated end and law enforcement end, instead of the treatment and prevention end.”

However, health officials have also seen progress in other areas like the increase in life expectancy.

“We’ve seen life expectency start to trend back up again. We’ve seen overall overdose rates start to go down for the first time in over 20 years,” Dr. Adams said.

There has been a decrease in neonatal abstinance syndrome in Tennessee, according to Dr. Lisa Piercey with TDH.

“We’ve seen a 43% reduction in prescribed morphine-milligram equivalence. And for the first time, we think we may be the first state to see a year-over-year decrease in the neonatal abstinence syndrome,”

“Unfortnately, most folks out there who are misuing a substance are self-medicated. They’re self-medicating physical, mental, emotional, spiritual pain. So, we can deal with the problems downstream, with the lockzone and medicated assistant treatment, but what we really need to do is deal with the upstream causes of these: adverse childhood experiences, we need to deal with social determinance.”

Congressman Roe also added that researchers have made a slight breakthrough in the coronavirus that has infected six people in the U.S. so far, and has killed more than 200 people in China.

He took part in a briefing, on Wednesday, with the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Homeland Security and the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

Representative Roe said, “They have taken the viral load from those five patients, have done the RNA analysis in a virus, compared that to the viruses in China. They are very similar. In 90 days, they will be in Phase one trials on the vaccine for this. That will take about a year. And that’s unheard of to be able to do it that quick.”

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