On the day a former Surgeon General of the United States was in Bel Air spreading his message of hope, based on prevention and treatment, in the face of the opioid addiction epidemic, there were three overdoses reported in Harford County.
Two of the three people died, including one at a location Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said his agency had responded to five times for overdose calls.
It was a fitting backdrop to the evening’s conversation.
Dr. Vivek Murthy, a surgeon general during the Obama Administration, told the near-capacity crowd gathered in the Bel Air High School Auditorium Thursday evening that what happened in Harford County that day wasn’t unusual. He said there was one constant he saw during his travels across the country.
“What I saw in every community is an epidemic,” Murthy said. “I also found many reasons to be hopeful. This is a chronic illness of the brain, but treatment works.”
And so that’s how the 90-minute program – called “Facing Addiction in Harford County: A Conversation with the 19th Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy” – went, recapping much of the recent past of opioid addiction and mapping some possible ways out of what speakers repeatedly called either an epidemic or a public health emergency.
“The federal government just recognized [addiction] as a public emergency,” Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said. “We’ve been at this a long time.”
From the beginning of his administration in 2015, Glassman made fighting heroin addiction a priority. He traced his resolve to fighting addiction to his days as a state senator when he became aware of the scourge of heroin and addiction.
Thursday’s program is part of the Glassman Administration’s effort to beat back the tragedy of addiction.
The county executive recounted his recent experience at the movies and a program of public service videos of young people looking into the camera and talking about loved ones they lost to addiction. The messages of love in those PSAs from younger siblings and their pain from the losses to addiction and overdoses were very effective, Glassman said.
“You could’ve heard a pin drop in that theater,” he said about what happened after one of the anti-addiction public service announcements played before the movie started.
Joe Ryan, Harford County’s longtime anti-drug czar, moderated the conversation from the stage in the Bel Air High School auditorium.
In addition to Gahler and Glassman, others on the stage during the presentation were Clay Stamp, senior emergency adviser to Gov. Larry Hogan and executive director of the state’s Opioid Operational Command Center; Murthy, the former surgeon general; and Barbara Canavan, superintendent of Harford County Public Schools.
Gahler talked about his agency’s parallel efforts – a traditional law enforcement approach and a non-traditional law enforcement approach – to fighting the addiction epidemic.
“[The dealers] are selling death,” Gahler said. “We are targeting the dealers to the best of our ability.”
The non-traditional tactics include tally boards keeping up-to-date statistics in front of the public in plain view of motorists driving in front of various precincts and police headquarters.
The tally boards were a recommendation of a multi-faceted work group Gahler put together to find other ways to help fight addiction.
“One of the first things I did when I took office was form the HOPE (Heroin Overdose Prevention Effort) group,” Gahler said.
The sheriff reminded everyone that addiction doesn’t have a boundary.
“Even if you’re not suffering from addiction, even if you don’t have a loved one suffering from addiction, we’re all suffering,” Gahler said.
The conversation about fighting addiction came back to talking to children at younger and younger ages.
“How do we teach our children to deal with stress in healthy ways?” Murthy asked rhetorically. “Kids learn how to deal with things really early on.”
Canavan said Harford County Public Schools has an anti-addiction curriculum for all students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
“We will do everything to make sure our students are safe,” she said.
Pre-K is not too early to start teaching kids that drugs are not the way to cope with stressful situations, the former surgeon general said.
“As early as possible, parents should open a conversation with their children about substance use,” Murthy said. “Starting the conversation is incredibly important.”
He said that it’s not unlike teaching a young child that hitting someone is not the proper response to getting angry.
“Even in the preschool years, children learn how to process adverse events,” Murthy said, and creating a loving, supportive environment for children is an essential element in the fight against addiction.
“Love is the most powerful medicine we have,” he said.
Murthy closed the panel discussion with his take on the immediate future in the fight against addiction and how best to make inroads against the epidemic.
“This is a profound moment of self definition for our country,” he said.
Beating addiction, he said, “means more investment in prevention and treatment,” which will lead to “building a stronger, healthier country for all of us.”
For those who were unable to attend, the program will be telecast on the Harford Cable Network.