New podcast amplifies Howard County health officer's voice on issues

The Baltimore Sun

A new podcast from the Howard County health department is letting residents listen in as local experts discuss community issues of concern — starting with the opioid crisis that is gripping the nation.

Called “The Doctor Is In,” the half-hour program launched last week and showcases county Health Officer Dr. Maura Rossman as she converses with guests in a casual format.

The first episode, Opioid Crisis Update, features interviews with the executive director of the state’s Opioid Operational Command Center and a former heroin user who is now a peer counseling specialist at the health department.

Podcasts will be live-streamed Sundays and Mondays for four weeks after they’re recorded on a quarterly basis at the studios of Dragon Digital Radio at Howard Community College. The first program, recorded June 19, will air July 1 at 10:30 a.m. and July 2 at 5 p.m. It can also be accessed on demand at dragondigitalradio.podbean.com.

The opioid crisis was chosen for the podcast’s debut “because nearly everyone knows someone who’s dealing with it,” said Rossman, a pediatrician and Ellicott City resident who was appointed county health officer in 2012.

Opioids are a class of drugs that include heroin, fentanyl and other synthetic drugs, and prescription pain relievers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine and morphine, according to the website of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“Drug addiction has been around forever, right?” Rossman said. “But when the governor declared a state of emergency for the opioid crisis [in March 2017] we began working on this issue very deliberately.”

The county health department has already placed ads on the sides of buses and aired public service announcements in movie theaters about the resources available to people who are addicted and their families and friends, Rossman said.

But bus messages “pass by in the blink of an eye,” and moviegoers often don’t pay attention to announcements that are shown before feature films, she said.

“People use podcasts as a way of getting information,” she said. “It’s hard to measure who we are reaching and how, so we’re trying to get to all audiences” by using all available outlets.

Since Rossman didn’t want to be the only one talking during the podcasts, she is working with Lisa DeHernandez, the health department’s public information officer, to compile a roster of compelling guests.

Jack Matthews, one of six peer counseling specialists with the department, fills that bill on the podcast’s debut episode, Rossman said.

“We believe our peer counselors are making a difference because they meet people where they are — physically and emotionally,” Rossman said. “Jack is a great talker and a great guy, and he’s someone we feel will resonate with listeners.”

Matthews, who is 54 and moved to Columbia in 2011 after he stopped using drugs, grew up on the streets of West Baltimore where many families were poor. Stealing and drug use were common, he said.

He describes himself as “an active heroin user for 30 years.”

“I had to get control of a life that I had spent a long, long time destroying,” Matthews said.

At first, recovery seemed like “a lost world or a hidden city that I could never reach,” he said. “But I want people to know that ‘once an addict, always an addict’ is a lie, and people can and do recover” from addiction.

During the podcast, Matthews tells Rossman that professional therapists could not get through to him when he finally did decide to seek help.

“But after hearing from someone like me with the same exact lived experience, I notice people tend to buy into the process a little easier,” he said. “We speak the same language and that gives people hope.”

Clay Stamp, executive director of the state’s Opioid Operational Command Center, also appeared on the podcast and told her the opioid crisis “strikes deep fear in people.”

“This crisis is tearing families apart because the stigma [of admitting to opioid drug addiction] is affecting their ability to combat it,” he said.

“We lost momentum in the past in teaching the dangers of drugs,” Stamp said, stating that initiatives such as the War on Drugs, Just Say No and DARE, which stood for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, “didn’t work.”

Stamp said progress is being made in reducing the number of deaths associated with prescribed opioids.

Rossman said the Howard County health department is “cautiously optimistic that we’re turning the tide on opioid deaths” after seeing a reduction of nearly 50 percent during the first six months of 2018 compared to the same period last year.

There were 29 overdose deaths between Jan. 1 and June 24, 2017 and there have been 15 this year during the same period, DeHernandez said.

There is one caveat: The Howard County Police Department said the 2018 figure could change from a 48 percent reduction from 2017 to 27.5 percent if pending autopsy results on six suspected overdose deaths show they are opioid-related, she noted.

Rossman attributes the decrease in overdose deaths to the increased availability of naloxone — also known by its trade name Narcan — a drug used to reverse the effects of opioids.

The county’s Department of Fire and Rescue Services joined a statewide pilot program on June 4 called Leave-Behind Naloxone, in which an emergency kit containing nasal naloxone and instructions for administering it is left with the overdose victim or their family and friends after emergency treatment, she noted.

Rossman said the statewide Prescription Drug Monitoring Program that goes into effect July 1 will require physicians across the state to register in a database, a step that will also provide a boost in the fight against opioid addiction.

The program will prevent doctors from prescribing opioids indiscriminately and deter addicted patients from attempting to see more than one physician to obtain extra pills, she explained.

“We know we’ll still be fighting [opioid abuse] in 10 years, but we’re hoping to continue seeing a decline in overdose deaths,” she said.

Rossman said the next “The Doctor Is In” podcast, to be recorded in September, will focus on the topic of sexually transmitted infections, which she said are on the rise in the county’s teenage population. In 2016, teens ages 15 to 19 made up 29 percent of the 948 new chlamydia cases and 14 percent of the 195 new gonorrhea cases, according to statistics from the Children’s Health Program.

In 2012, the rate of chlamydia per 100,000 teens was 666; by 2016 the figure had nearly doubled, to 1,259. The rate of gonorrhea per 100,000 teens was 79 in 2012, and climbed to 125.5 in 2016.

“We hope these podcasts educate people about the various resources that are available in Howard County,” Rossman said. “We scratch our heads when people don’t take advantage of them.”

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