When Joseph Fleming died less than two days after his friend Isaac overdosed on heroin cut with fentanyl, his family assumed it was for the same reason. However, when his mother received her son’s death certificate, it said Joseph died from cocaine laced with fentanyl— a synthetic opioid local first-responders have been warning the community is 50 times more potent then heroin and killing more people than the drugs themselves.
Dee Fleming said she is determined to use Joseph’s death as a way to “break through that wall of shame that’s attached” to drug addiction, drug users and their families.
“I wanted to start a dialog to get people talking about the opioid problem in our community,” she told a room of people who want the same thing.
Fleming shared her son’s story at an Epidemic Intelligence Council (EpIC) meeting last Friday. The organization was developed by Orange County Department of Social Services Director Crystal Hale in an attempt to bring together people from a cross-section of different disciplines and professions within the community to discuss the opioid epidemic.
“We know there is a problem and things are being done, but I think capturing what exactly is being done and identifying what’s not being done might be a good start,” Hale said.
More than a dozen officials representing local law enforcement, health services, schools and local government met for the inaugural EpIC meeting in February. Some new faces joined the discussion last week.
District 5 Supervisor Lee Frame said he was interested in learning about policies, funding or other ways the supervisors could help address the problem. Orange County Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Bill Berry said he was concerned about how the epidemic is affecting not just the students but their parents, who are the primary drug users.
“I want to continue to see how we can help our parents, because at this point we’re not seeing this as a big issue with our students but we are seeing how it affecting our students because of parents, grandparents or others involved there,” he said.
In 2016, more than 1,130 people died of opioid drug overdoses in Virginia. Of those, 25 were in Orange County and included five from heroin, five from prescription opioids and nine from fentanyl, Interim Orange County Fire and Rescue Chief Nathan Mort said. Mort said the average age of patients for all overdose calls in Orange County is 40 years old, and the average age range of deaths due to opioids in the county is 35 to 44.
According to a map produced by the Virginia Department of Health, Orange, Culpeper and Fauquier counties have the highest fentanyl and/or heroin overdose mortality rates in the state.
“Therefore, I believe that it only stands to reason that we should strive to be number one in recovery resources,” Fleming said. “If we’re the worst and hardest hit, we need to be the most progressive in preparing help for those in need.”
When her son died, Fleming said she tried to seek resources but was disappointed with the lack of information available to drug users and their families. She began to gather information, resources and local data which she now publishes on her Facebook page “Culpeper Overdose Awareness,” as a way to “keep the conversation open and on the forefront of people’s mind.”
“I’m learning so many addicts and their families suffer in silence because of the stigma. They don’t know of the resources,” she said. “There is help out there, but what I’ve found is it’s scattered, outdated, disorganized and hard to find.”
She compared the opioid crisis to a puzzle, noting different groups hold different puzzle pieces. Without working together, the puzzle doesn’t come together “as beautifully or as seamlessly” as it could, she said.
Joesph’s life is another puzzle Fleming said she is working on. In the time since his October 13, 2017, death, she and her family have been working together to process Joesph’s life, especially the last few days of it.
“The lesson I take away from that is how critical communication within the family circle is,” she said. “We thought we were communicating but it turns out there were a lot of gaps in that. As we continue to reflect back on Joe’s life, we’ve come to realize that each of us had some little piece of knowledge that the others did not.”
Her son was a hard worker with two jobs, an active lifestyle and loving family and friends, she said. She didn’t know he used drugs other than marijuana but later learned his drug of choice was cocaine.
“I feel like it is so important to tell this story in that respect because a lot of people think you have to be an addict to die from this and it really just takes one time of getting the wrong party drug,” she said. “It only takes one time to die. You don’t have to be an ‘addict,’ especially now with drugs being cut with fentanyl.”
While conducting her research, Fleming said she has realized how much opioids are affecting the community she lives in and how “ignorant” she was on the issue. The local librarian and Culpeper resident said people are unaware that the problem is in their backyard and education can play a vital role in addressing it.
“Keeping this issue in the forefront of the minds of citizens is critical to making a dent in the opioid problem in Orange,” she said.
The Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office publishes daily activity reports that include information on overdoses reported to the sheriff’s office there. As of Tuesday, Fauquier County had four opiate overdose deaths this year and 15 overdoses.
“There is no way to work on a problem if you don’t know one exists,” she said.
Supervisor Frame said he’d talk to local first-responders about releasing similar information so citizens could know how prevalent and nearby the opioid epidemic is.
Fleming said she is working to bring more resources to the county, including a 12-step support group and training on how to use naloxone, a prescription drug which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and can be life-saving if administered in time. A biblically based 12-step program will begin in Madison County April 12. Warrenton, Fauquier, Culpeper, Fredericksburg and Charlottesville also offer a variety of programs she lists on her Facebook page.
Hale asked Fleming if she were provided with funding, how she would focus her efforts.
“Long-term treatment,” Fleming said, noting long-term rehabilitation is imperative to get addicts off drugs.
She said no one group can fight the epidemic alone, but “working together can only bring tremendous strength.”
Fentanyl is like a hurricane, Fleming said. It might not hit you, but you have to prepare for it in case it does.
Hale said with fentanyl already in the community, the county needs to prepare for the next storm— carfentanil.
While fentanyl is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin, carfentanil, another synthetic opioid, is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl.
EpIC plans to meet regularly to discuss the opioid epidemic and future epidemics that may face the community. The next EpIC meeting has not yet been scheduled.
For more information on the opioid epidemic, including an opioid public health emergency resource guide, visit www.vdh.virginia.gov/rappahannock-rapidan/. Fleming’s Facebook page, “Culpeper Overdose Awareness,” includes links to upcoming events and local resources.