Keeping the crisis in check

Sumter first-responder agencies determined to reduce opioid use

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It is no secret that Sumter is included in the national wave of increased heroin and opioid use. However, representatives of local first-responder agencies are determined to keep the problem from growing any larger.

Along the way, law enforcement and medical professionals are finding that tackling the issue takes more than making arrests and treating people experiencing an overdose.

Sumter Emergency Medical Services Director Bobby Hingst said his department has seen a 40 percent increase in the amount of opioid related calls since 2015. He said EMS responds to about three calls per week, at a minimum, regarding opioid use. The majority of those calls involve heroin, he said.

Hingst said many of the people who overdose on heroin or opioid medications are teenagers and people in their late 20s.

Heroin that is mixed with Fentanyl is commonly used in Sumter and is very deadly, he said.

Responding to an overdose is very time sensitive, he said. In most cases, it takes between 5 and 10 minutes to reverse the effects of the overdose, using Narcan and other methods, he said.

Narcan is a medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid or heroin overdose. The medication is not effective for other drugs.

Hingst said the EMS department has carried Narcan for years but law enforcement agencies are now being trained to administer the medication because of the increase of overdoses. Sumter police officers began training to administer Narcan in 2016, and Sumter County deputies will begin training in August.

Sometimes law enforcement officers are the first ones on the scene so it is helpful to EMS that they start the treatment process before EMS can get there, he said.

EMS is able to save the majority of people experiencing an overdose, Hingst said. "We will do everything we can if time is on our side," he said.

Hingst said the next step after reversing an overdose is to introduce that person to programs that can help them stay clean.

Sumter Police Chief Russell Roark III expressed the same concern for making sure people addicted to opioids receive treatment to overcome their addiction.

The opioid problem is a health issue as well as a crime issue, he said.

Roark said treatment combined with confinement could be effective in keeping a person drug free. And the fact that someone is a habitual user should be factored into the sentencing, he said.

Money will be spent to keep that person incarcerated and provide health care, so it would be efficient to use part of that money to provide addiction treatment, he said.

The first time a person goes through a rehabilitation program may not be effective, but mandatory confinement and treatment could be a better approach, Roark said.

He also said a mandatory minimum sentence for people convicted of selling or distributing opioids could be effective on the enforcement side of things.

Locally, Roark said the police department is evaluating the situation and taking steps to get the drugs off of city streets as well as educating the public about the dangers of the drug.

Sumter County Sheriff Anthony Dennis said heroin used to be common among middle-aged people about 20 years ago but usage of the drug increased during the past three years.

He said heroin usage, which decreased decades ago, has come back and is now as common as crack cocaine and marijuana. It's like the use of heroin increased overnight, he said.

Investigators are finding that most of the heroin brought into Sumter County comes from northern states, Dennis said.

He said the heroin that is being sold today is much stronger than the drugs that were sold decades ago because other drugs, such as Fentanyl, are being mixed in. There's no way to know what is mixed in with the heroin or how strong it is, Dennis said.

Dennis said he plans to meet with Hingst to discuss how to educate the public. The best education would come from the people who see the effects of opioids on a daily basis, he said.

Education is more effective that incarceration, he said.