As editor of the Hickory Daily Record, I have the distinct privilege and honor of serving in the Thursday Rotary Club of Hickory.

Rotary’s motto, “Service above self,” and each member’s calling to represent our community, in one of more than 34,000 clubs worldwide, carries a significant responsibility – an opportunity to help our neighbors.

Spearheading service projects since the Hickory club’s founding in 1921, Rotary members have enriched countless lives in the community along the way.

Hickory City Manager Warren Wood was a guest speaker at Thursday’s meeting.

Wood discussed a crucial initiative regarding economic development within the city limits – conversely, a project that could improve lives throughout the county.

The project will remain on the HDR’s radar, and readers can view the initial reporting about Wood’s economic framework online (http://bit.ly/2uk4QLB).

During the last few minutes of Wood’s presentation, he petitioned the club for questions. The first query was an amusing jab at the impending elections due to some mayoral candidates’ attendance.

However, the tone changed when asked how the city plans to respond to the opioid crisis.

Wood confirmed the person was referencing the 2016 Castlight Health report findings recently published in the HDR.

He said the report was false.

An audience member responded with “it was in the Hickory Daily Record,” which eventually led to Wood saying, I don’t read the paper, and then he added, I’m joking; I’m joking.

In a matter of minutes, two problems barreled into the audience. First, the seeming denial of an actual crisis impacting the community, and second, rhetoric making light of staying informed – words spoken by arguably the most important, and highest paid, public servant of Hickory’s government.

Now, I emphasize “seeming denial of an actual crisis” when referencing Wood’s remarks about the Castlight report that labeled Hickory the fifth worst city in the nation in regards to opioid abuse.

Immersed in the business of words, of course, I believe semantics are important.

Perhaps he didn’t have the time Thursday to dive into Hickory’s opioid crisis at the tail end of his message.

Wood’s job, simply stated, is to make certain the city is represented in the best possible light (among a plethora of other responsibilities).

As someone listening to his response, I saw it as a knee-jerk reaction to the Castlight report, and from a marketing and public relations standpoint, a reaction like this typically attempts to discredit and deny the message.

The HDR pursued the story well past the initial report; on the following Sunday, an expansive article was published about the opioid crisis (http://bit.ly/2vFIZQB).

In the second story, not only did the HDR interview members of the Hickory Police Department, but we reached out to Olive Branch Ministries, which is a faith-based harm reduction ministry, and delved into the Castlight report findings.

Plainly stated, the Castlight report was at best weak and at worst incomplete due to sampling.

The organization’s survey targeted employers across the country that use Castlight’s health benefits platform. In all of the companies using the platform, nearly 1 million Americans’ medical and pharmacy-based claims were analyzed.

With these claims, Castlight defined opioid abuse and applied that criterion to the data.

Abuse required two conditions to be met: an individual received “greater than a cumulative 90-day supply of opioids,” and an individual received “an opioid prescription from four or more providers over the five-year period between 2011 and 2015.”

Common sense would dictate these two conditions are more than likely to identify opioid abusers, regardless if an individual was arrested, hospitalized or died – three categories the state measures closely.

But, if you don’t like dealing in probabilities, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services tracks data that hits close to home.

Catawba County is 13th in the state for unintentional prescription opioid poisoning deaths and 16th in the state for prescription opioid poisoning hospitalizations, according to DHHS.

In an effort to save lives, the Hickory Police Department now carries Naloxone, a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose.

“We have saved many people with that over the last couple of years,” HPD Deputy Chief Reed Baer said in the July 23 article. “Our job is to protect and preserve life. One (overdose) is too many, in our eyes.”

Baer added the department is continually seeking programs that can divert abusers out of a cycle of arrest and into treatment.

“(We) can’t arrest (our) way out of this problem, and you have to really look outside of traditional law enforcement measures to deal with a problem of this magnitude,” Baer said previously.

Olive Branch Ministries has been HPD’s partner in the fight against opioid abuse in the area, too. The group, in conjunction with North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, helped provide officers with Naloxone while on duty.

Olive Branch Ministries also partners with the coalition and its syringe exchange, which helps lessen the risk of disease and creates an opportunity to guide more people into recovery.

The report was not false – Hickory has an opioid abuse problem.

Beyond the opioid crisis, crime statistics were compiled from eight different police agencies in the county, according to an Aug. 7 HDR article (http://bit.ly/2vd9e2Y).

The county’s drug abuse violation rate (1,473 incidents per 100,000 residents) was three times higher than the national average (463 incidents per 100,000 residents).

The good news, however, is HPD’s drug abuse violations have dropped 23 percent from January to June 2016 vs. January to June 2017.

“The folks that are trafficking and supplying it, we have to really work hard to put them out of business,” HPD Chief Thurman Whisnant said in the August article.

In the same article, Catawba County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Jason Reid discussed the Castlight report.

“I don’t care about (the study), because what I try to tell our drug investigators is ‘yeah, that’s terrible for us to be number five in the nation, but we need to have the mentality that we’re number one,’” Reid said previously. “There’s nothing to brag about; everyone is on the list somewhere.”

Police officers across the county, and countless organizations, work tirelessly to save lives and tackle the epidemic.

As Baer said, one overdose is too many. Regardless of your love or passion for Hickory, it’s OK to admit there is a problem; that’s the first step in fixing it.

Jon LaFontaine is the editor of the Hickory Daily Record.

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