In the community

Coalition seeks solutions, strategies to address local overdose dilemma

ONTARIO – A group of local officials are devising strategies to address a perceived growing number of fatal and nonfatal overdoses triggered by illegal narcotics.
The group seeks to bolster communication between different agencies in Malheur County regarding overdoses, share information and define overdose, substance abuse and prevention priorities for the area.
The group includes officials from the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, the Ontario Police Department, the Malheur Education Service District, Lifeways and the Malheur County Health Department and the state Department of Human Services.
They met in November in Ontario, convened by OSU Extension Family and Community Health. The long-term, overall goal of the group is to develop drug abuse prevention techniques and an overdose response plan for Malheur County.
Dubbed a “Community Conversation,” the session was triggered by a 2022 study among 27 public health and safety leaders inside the Oregon-Idaho High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, said Allison Myers, associate dean for extension and engagement at OSU’s College of Health.
The meeting produced “plenty of ideas” for Malheur County, said Myers.
One priority established by the study was a need for more collaboration among agencies to focus on overdoses, said Myers.
Local statistics regarding local fatal and nonfatal overdoses are hard to come by but anecdotally, emergency service providers and police believe the numbers in Malheur County are at an all-time high.
“We are seeing and responding to more (overdoses) then we have ever seen. It has never been like this before. It is through the roof,” said Malheur County Sheriff Travis Johnson.
Finding a more effective way to measure overdoses is crucial, said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.
Verified statistics on overdoses would help the county seek federal or state funding to battle the opioid epidemic. If agencies work together and share information, defining the true extent of the overdose problem will be easier, said Poe.
Poe said while the drug treatment matrix in Malheur County is robust, it is also decentralized.
“All of us have our own different agencies and funding and expectations. But I think it is better working together and utilizing the many resources we have,” said Poe.
A key goal, said Poe, will to identify those struggling with addiction and and connect them to a resource in the community.
Fentanyl seems to be driving many of the overdoses and Mike Iwai, Ontario Police Department chief, said its use is rampant.
Ontario Police Department statistics show between April 2022 and November 2023, officers responded to 36 overdose calls – or about 1.5 a month.
“Before fentanyl hit, it is something we never really saw. One in a half (overdoses responses) per month is not a good number,” he said.
Iwai said his department’s statistics probably don’t capture all of overdoses.
“I definitely think fentanyl is problematic. It is in our schools. If it is in your schools it is in the general community,” he said.
Johnson said the meetings proved beneficial regarding information sharing.
“We are collaborating with the health department to make sure all of those (overdose) numbers get to them to get an accurate picture of what we have at the county level,” said Johnson.
Johnson said a new software system the sheriff’s office set to go online in March will also help.
Poe said more meetings are planned for the future.
“We will continue to build on what our roles are in our individual organizations,” said Poe.
Myers said the group is working on a meeting summary and plan to convene again either later this winter or in the spring.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

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