PBS NewsHour Special: A Community Overwhelmed by Opioids

BrightView is sharing a series of episodes from PBS that are being broadcast every evening this week titled “America Addicted”, which airs at 7:00pm.

We will be posting the transcripts and links to the videos of the episodes that are relevant to the work we do at BrightView.  You can find all of the episodes on this website here:  America Addicted 

For a link to the original article and video below, click here.

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At the epicenter of America’s opioid epidemic, Huntington, West Virginia’s growing addiction problem has overwhelmed everyone from first responders to business owners to newborns. So far, the city’s robust efforts to fight back haven’t been enough to curb the overdoses. Hari Sreenivasan reports as part of our series, “America Addicted.”

 

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Now to a special reporting effort here at the NewsHour that we are calling, “America Addicted.”

    Opioids are now the biggest drug epidemic in American history.

    Every night this week and beyond, we will explore the impact and efforts to address this crisis.

    I recently traveled to one of the hardest-hit states, West Virginia. It has the highest death rate from drug overdoses in the country. We spent some time in one city to get a sense of just how wide and deep this crisis is and how opioids have changed the very fabric of life there.

  • 911 Operator:

    Burger King … Station 3, Station 3…

  • 911 Operator:

    3210 Washington Boulevard for an overdose. Advise that female is outside on the ground.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It’s not even 10:30 in the morning in Huntington, West Virginia, and it’s happened again. Another overdose. This time just outside a fast food restaurant. A woman is unconscious and turning blue on the sidewalk.

    First responders move in with an anti-overdose medication, naloxone. A few minutes pass. She revives, as if waking from a nap. The needles she used go in a sharps container. The woman goes in an ambulance.

    It’s become a well-choreographed dance in this city on the banks of the Ohio River and at the heart of America’s opioid epidemic.

  • JAN RADER, Chief, Huntington Fire Department:

    I bet you I have been to 20 overdoses in that house.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Jan Rader is the fire chief in this city, a place now defined by both the scope of its struggle and its attempts to fight back.

  • JAN RADER:

    We have no fear of failure. If we try something and it doesn’t work, let’s move on to something else.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Of the 100,000 people who live in Huntington and surrounding Cabell County, officials estimate that 10,000 of them have become addicted to opioids like heroin and pain pills.

    Officials say there have been more than 100 deaths in Cabell County so far in 2017, with more than 2,000 overdoses expected by year’s end.

    Steve Williams is the mayor of Huntington.

  • MAYOR STEVE WILLIAMS, Huntington, West Virginia:

    The level of addiction is beyond anyone’s comprehension. I have never known anything that was so all-consuming. It is affecting everybody in this community.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    That means slowed-down traffic at businesses like Roll-A-Rama, open since 1962.

  • LEVI HOGAN, Owner, Roll-A-Rama:

    It’s just running the neighborhoods down. Running the business off. Running the people who would spend money here, who are trying to do good here, running them all off.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Trouble at the regional pharmacy chain, in the parking lots and inside the stores.

  • LYNNE FRUTH, President, Fruth Pharmacy:

    It’s difficult to hire employees. It’s difficult to find people who can pass the drug screens.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Needles scattered in the parks.

  • TERRY WATTS, Greater Huntington Park & Recreation District:

    We have found them … in the past, we have found in the playgrounds, different things … bathrooms, edges of parking lots, boat ramp. I mean, the floods, the floodwater brings a bunch of them in down there, believe it or not.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Needles clogging stormwater catch basins and threatening sanitation workers.

  • WESLEY LEEK, Director, Huntington Sanitary Board:

    They may actually have to physically reach down and pull debris out. We use a needle-proof, cut-proof gloves to protect our employees from being stuck.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And bacterial infections tied to I.V. drug use now common throughout the city.

  • DR. JAMES BECKER, Marshall University School of Medicine:

    Some of them go to the bone, some of them go to the kidneys, some of them go to the brain. Things that, you know, you didn’t expect to see very often, because they were described as rare in your medical textbook. And now you see them all the time.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The health consequences are deeper still. At Cabell Huntington Hospital, one out of every five babies delivered has been exposed to drugs before they were born.

  • SARA MURRAY, Nurse Manager, Neonatal Therapeutic Unit:

    We are a 15-bed unit, and, today, we have 18. Last, week we had 26.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Sara Murray helped create a unit specifically for these newborns.

    You’re keeping this place dim for the babies’ sake…

  • SARA MURRAY:

    Yes. We try to keep a low-stimulus environment. And that means we keep the lights low and we keep the unit as quiet as possible.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Babies here go through withdrawal for drugs like painkillers and heroin, and more often these days, other substances being cut into the heroin supply, like fentanyl and the anti-seizure medication gabapentin.

  • SARA MURRAY:

    It’s just devastating for these babies. Neurological symptoms that we’d never seen before, we’re seeing now. And they have rapid eye movements just different than anything I have ever seen. They roll down, they roll up, back and forth. And they tongue-thrust. I mean they’re thrusting their tongue all the time. And they’re very uncomfortable.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It’s still not clear what the long-term impacts on these children will be. But in the short-term, many of them are entering the foster care system.

  • STEPHANIE ADKINS, Adoptive Mother:

    Olivia was born addicted to cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and a pain pill that contains snake venom.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Some children, like two-year-old Olivia, are being placed with foster families in other parts of the state.

  • STEPHANIE ADKINS:

    We’re going on a bear hunt…

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Olivia now lives an hour-and-a-half from Huntington with her adoptive mother, Stephanie Adkins, Stephanie’s husband and their 5-year-old, Ethan, who came to them after similar circumstances.

    The system, Adkins says, is stretched dangerously thin.

  • STEPHANIE ADKINS:

    You’re going to have children that are just sitting in a group care home, with no family to speak of, because there’s physically nowhere else to put them. That’s where I see us going if we don’t figure something out to try to stop the flow of children just flying into the foster care system.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How did West Virginia get to this point?

    In some ways, it was a state with a target on its back. One heavily dependent on manual labor jobs like coal mining and manufacturing. Jobs that leave workers prone to injury and chronic pain.

    When a new group of painkillers emerged in the mid-90s, pharmaceutical companies and distributors saw a ripe market.

    Eric Eyre of the Charleston Gazette-Mail recently uncovered documents exposing the extent of the pharmaceutical campaign between 2007 and 2012.

  • ERIC EYRE, Charleston Gazette-Mail:

    There had been 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone doses shipped to West Virginia over those six years.

    We’re one of the smallest states in the country. We have 1.8 million people. So, that comes out to roughly about 430 pills per person.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    An eventual crackdown on pain pills caused many to switch to heroin and fentanyl, far more potent cousins of drugs like hydrocodone and oxycodone. Overdose deaths spiked.

    In March, a state fund to pay for burials for the poor ran out of money five months before the end of the fiscal year.

  • STEVE WILLIAMS:

    The drug dealers are going to pay for this, just the way that I see the pharmaceutical companies are going to pay.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    In Huntington and Cabell County, officials have resolved to respond to every overdose case aggressively… ramp up treatment and accountability programs, when appropriate through drug courts that have a strong track record of leading people toward recovery, instead of incarceration.

  • WOMAN:

    Do I understand that you have four months and two days clean?

  • WOMAN:

    I do.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And by giving young people incentives to steer clear of drugs in the first place.

    Every middle and high school student in this district is randomly drug-tested if they want to participate in any extracurricular activities, like play sports, or even drive their car to class.

    At this high school, 700 of the 1,700 students take part in the program. Almost every one of them tests clean.

    But all that, Fire Chief Rader says, hasn’t been enough. The overdoses keep coming, the same people over and over, with seemingly few lessons learned.

  • JAN RADER:

    They refuse treatment. They go right back out on the street, typically get high again.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    How dispiriting is that? You literally brought someone back to life, and they’re choosing — or they’re not — it’s not a choice, but..

  • JAN RADER:

    It’s very frustrating on every level. But that doesn’t stop us from saving the life.

    It’s a very stressful time to be a first-responder. I probably was a firefighter for 10 years before I saw a significant number of dead bodies.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Yes.

  • JAN RADER:

    These young guys that we’re hiring, 23, 24, 25 years old, they’re seeing 50, 60 dead bodies a year, and not just dead bodies. They’re seeing young dead bodies. Sometimes their friends. Sometimes people they graduated from high school with.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Rader’s crews responded to 3,500 calls in 2015. Last year, 4,500. This year, they’re on track for more than 5,500.

    One out of every four times a fire truck leaves this station, it’s for an overdose case.

  • LT. JAMES MULLINS, Huntington Fire Department:

    It messes with your mind. I mean, I’m not going to lie to you. It hurts.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    On one of those calls last year, Lieutenant James Mullins was pricked by a needle. Months of tests and treatment followed.

    How’d your life change after that?

  • LT. JAMES MULLINS:

    My personal life at home changed quite a bit, because of not knowing, the unknowns, that I — if I had a disease.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The fallout changed the way he views the city’s attempts to save people who repeatedly overdose. He wonders if these programs might actually be attracting more drug users to the area, fueling the cycle.

  • LT. JAMES MULLINS:

    I believe, to a point, that we don’t need to be going to the same houses over and over again and keep giving these people chances. Because it’s a waste of resources.

  • JOSEPH CICCARELLI, Chief, Huntington Police Department:

    You have to keep telling yourself that, you know, this has been a 20-year decline, and it’s not going to be fixed in a year or two.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Police chief Joseph Ciccarelli says all of this will probably get worse before it gets better.

  • JOSEPH CICCARELLI:

    You see abandoned buildings, abandoned houses. And these were neighborhoods that were, you know, working-class neighborhoods 30, 40 years ago, because there were jobs here.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Neighborhoods that have become the scenes of devastation, including one mass-casualty situation last year, when 26 people overdosed in a single day.

  • JOSEPH CICCARELLI:

    We had one residence in particular where we had six people down at one location.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Drug-related crimes are high, he said. So are the number of car accidents now tied to drug use, one in which a woman overdosed while driving, triggering a crash that sent another car plunging 80 feet off an interstate bridge.

    And the drugs, he says, keep flowing in from Detroit, Michigan, and Columbus, Ohio, despite the high number of arrests his force makes.

  • JOSEPH CICCARELLI:

    We have got 10,000 heroin addicts here. There’s a market here. It’s basically supply and demand. We have a demand, and there’s going to be a supply.

  • MAYOR STEVE WILLIAMS:

    It is the best of times in Huntington, yet the worst of times.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The best of times, Mayor Williams says, because collaboration in the city has never been stronger. Lessons are being learned every day that are spreading to other parts of the country.

  • MAYOR STEVE WILLIAMS:

    I believe that we will end up on the right side of it.

    What I am constantly trying to do is lift people up. ‘Square your shoulders. We are from Huntington, West Virginia, and we’re showing an example to the rest of the country how you can defeat this.’

    And then, as soon as I do that, then we will end up hearing the fire trucks going by. And they’re going after another overdose.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    For the PBS NewsHour in Huntington, West Virginia, I’m Hari Sreenivasan.

     

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