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Suicide and Opioid Summit Spotlight Carbon County's Struggle

Erik Neumann / KUER
Pharmacist Michael Wright talked about responsible prescribing practices at the HOPE Summit in Carbon County.

Carbon County has some of the highest rates of opioid overdoses and death by suicide in the state. This week the Southeast Utah Health Department held a conference in Price to talk about it. Organizers called it the HOPE Summit.

Around 250 social workers, pharmacists, police officers and recovery advocates gathered in this coal mining town on the Utah State University Eastern campus.

One attendee was Randy Parker, Utah’s director for rural development with USDA. Parker is a member of the Trump administration’s national team to create a strategy to deal with the opioid problem in rural America.

"When I heard that Carbon County has a rate of opioid overdose death that’s double the state average, that sends off alarm bells that we need to do more in rural Utah," Parker said. 

Debbie Marvidakis works with the local health department. She says Carbon, Emery and Grand counties have 50 percent of the opioid overdoses and suicides in the state, but just two percent of the funding to deal with it.

"I think that we’re economically depressed right now. We have a lot of families who are experiencing difficulties and they’re not quite sure how to cope with those difficulties," Marvidakis said. 

The conference highlighted relatively low-cost programs like a naltrexone pilot project in the Carbon County jail, to help people get clean using opioid-blocking medication. A new clinic called Operation Recovery will open in the next month to treat people with substance use disorder. And, a disease prevention program recently started visiting Carbon County where active drug users can get clean syringes to help prevent the spread of hepatitis C and HIV.

The syringe service was controversial at first. Some law enforcement and health workers felt distributing needles encouraged drug use. But not the director of Four Corners Community Behavioral Health, Karen Dolan. She says the program run by One Voice Recovery is also a way to build trust with drug users and get them into treatment. 

"The more I learned about it, it’s a way to kind of get your foot in the door to get people into disease prevention, to get into hepatitis C diagnosis and treatment, to help people get into substance abuse treatment," she said. 

Cameron Williams is a former ER doctor in Price. Now he works at the community health center in town. He says there’s been economic pressure on people working in the coal industry for years. Williams has seen miners use opioids to stay at work even if they’re injured and in pain.

"It’s part and parcel to coal mining, whether you’re here or Indiana or Kentucky, that you have those issues," Williams said. 

Organizers like Karen Dolan say they’re hopeful that the infusion of new programs will improve things in Carbon County, but everyone agrees it won’t be easy.

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