BEDFORD — The opioid crisis has hit Lawrence County.
A public health emergency declared in response to rising hepatitis C rates? Check. The introduction of a controversial syringe exchange program to combat said hepatitis problem? Check. An overcrowded jail largely made up of drug offenders? Check.
Lawrence County averaged 49.3 nonfatal overdose visits to the emergency room per 100,000 people, according to the Indiana State Department of Health report that compiled statewide data by county from 2011 to 2015.
The recent report also points to rising hepatitis C rates in the area. In 2011, Lawrence County averaged 80.1 people per 100,000 with chronic hepatitis C. That number shot up to 127.5 per 100,000 people in 2015, higher than the state’s rate of 105.8.
“A high percentage of those cases are reported (from) drug use,” said Sherry Lawson, Lawrence County’s public health nurse.
The state declared a public health emergency in Lawrence County last year to help address the drug crisis.
The state designation allowed for a syringe exchange program. The program, which is operated by Indiana Recovery Alliance, started in December. Its mobile van is parked behind the Lawrence County Health Department once a week, on Tuesday evenings.
“I knew that having this rise in cases could have many implications for all of us,” Lawson said. “The cost of treatment, cost of lost days at work, additional workload at the jail, children placed in foster care. … Obviously, my biggest concern, overall, is to prevent the spread of disease. Next was to identify the best practices for a needle exchange program, and starting one that would be beneficial to those in need.”
It’s a complex issue with a variety of possible solutions to combat the problem, including legislation, treatment centers, recovery groups and the needle exchange program. Lawson said the effects of the county’s solutions — and whether they worked — won’t be immediately seen.
“I hesitate to compare Lawrence County to other surrounding counties,” Lawson said. “Each county is unique, and all of us are struggling with issues of addiction within our communities. It will take several years to be able to look at our current programs and see whether or not they are working.”
Lawson said she’s happy with the community response so far.
“Although I was in Arizona practicing public health for 15 years, I was born and raised in Lawrence County,” Lawson said. “I have great respect for the people here. Individuals in Lawrence County have traditionally been very compassionate and caring. They are willing to try new things to better their community, even if it means putting their personal bias aside to see what happens.”
But not everyone feels this way.
Kathy Heckard is facilitator for the local chapter of Parents of Addicted Loved Ones support group. She thinks some in the community often give a cold shoulder to drug addicts.
“There’s not been enough of a response, because there is so much shame and embarrassment from having someone in your family abusing drugs,” Heckard said. “We need to educate, educate, educate. At first, learning that someone has an addiction, it knocks the wind out of you. You can either stay down or pick yourself up, then educate yourself.”
David Norris, a recovering addict who started the Heaven Nevaeh Healing Center, agrees with Heckard that education is a key component.
Norris doesn’t support the needle exchange program being offered in his community and others in Indiana.
In his view, it only prolongs the opiate crisis.
“With the needle exchange program ... you don’t give people more access to poison. My approach is abstinence, you know, saying, ‘You guys have got to stop,’” Norris said.
But it’s not just the hep C and HIV rates that are concerning health officials in the area. Lawson said she is worried about the deadliness of opioids, especially heroin laced with fentanyl or carfentanyl.
In 2016, three deaths were caused by heroin overdoses in Lawrence County, according to the coroner’s office, although these numbers do not reflect cases with a separate cause of death in which drugs may have played only a partial role.
“I am very concerned with the fact that we are in a nationwide opioid crisis,” Lawson said. “Our nation is in trouble. What will happen in Lawrence County if we should see such things as heroin laced with fentanyl, which is deadly? What is the answer to drug addiction? I don’t know, but I am very concerned. I don’t want to see families suffer more than they already have. I don’t want to see unnecessary death in our communities.”