U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams talks opioid crisis at Aspen forum

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams making opening remarks in Wednesday's opioid crisis community forum at Aspen Elementary School.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

Speaking at a community opioid forum Wednesday in Aspen, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams urged attendees to take all means to fight an epidemic that had a part in more than 45,000 deaths in the United States in 2016.

“I have a 13-year-old son, a 12-year-old son and an 8-year old daughter. And unfortunately when you look at the statistics, life expectancy in the U.S. has gone down for the second year in a row,” he told a crowd gathered at the Aspen Elementary School.

“And that’s the first time this has happened in over 50 years. Put another way, I represent the first generation in the last half of a century who can’t look their kids in the eye and say you’re going to outlive me. That’s not a legacy I want to leave to them.”

Adams’ appearance at the forum, hosted by Aspen Valley Hospital and Pitkin County Public Health, was not expected. But on the eve of the event, the nation’s 20th surgeon general, who is in town for the Aspen Institute’s Spotlight Health series that kicks off the Ideas Festival, connected with forum organizers resulting in what Sheriff Joe DiSalvo called “an incredible stroke of luck on this community’s part.”

Adams’ opening remarks — he said a person dies every 12 minutes in American from opioids abuse — set the stage for a sparsely attended event with a robust talk about the nation’s opioid epidemic and how it is playing out in Colorado and Pitkin County.

Adams, who took his post in September after President Trump’s nomination in June 2017, called on people to remove opioid narcotics from their medicine cabinets while advocating treatment for addicts. Opioids come in such pills as hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine and other prescription drugs. Illegal drugs with opioids include heroine, fentanyl and opium and carfentanil.

In April, he issued an advisory calling for people to carry the drug naloxone, which counter overdoses.

“I’m just tired of going across the country and hearing all the terrible stories from parent after parent, to find their children dead in their homes,” he said.

The surgeon general has been criticized by some for suggesting the use of naloxone enables the addicts.

“What’s the alternative?” asked Adams, saying he has a brother serving prison time in connection to his addiction to opioids. “Are we going to let them die?”

The other featured speakers, Dr. Robert Valuck, director of the Colorado Consortium of Prescription Drug Abuse, and Pitkin County Medical Officer Dr. Kimberly Levin agreed with that approach. Naloxone — which costs $120 without insurance — can be bought over the counter at pharmacies. Deputies and officers at the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and Aspen Police Department have carried it since August.

“My deputies carry two doses with them,” DiSalvo said, “but we have not yet had an application, and I hope we never do.”

Data for Pitkin County related to opioids is scarce, but the available figures show there have been three opioid deaths in the past 12 months, all of them coming since November. Levin, however, said that hardly tells the entire story.

“I think the death data is not an accurate picture of what’s going on here,” she said. “We need data on near-deaths, which we don’t have. We need data on traumas related to opioid use.”

The local medical community also is taking a proactive approach to limiting the use of opioids by reducing prescriptions and directing patients to take alternative pain medications such as Tylenol and Advil.

For some, however, opioid drugs are necessary, said Basalt family practitioner Dr. Kelly Locke, noting that the non-abusers can still have withdrawal issues when they get off the narcotics.

Valuck emphasized that opioids can affect just about anybody ­— be it the person who originally received the prescription or another person who finds it in a medicine cabinet and becomes hooked. Data show the person who happens upon the drugs is more prone to long-term additions.

Valuck said it needs the same attention that America’s other top three medical ailments and conditions attract — cancer, obesity and heart disease.

“We have to view this one the same way,” he said.

He noted the lack of treatment facilities and options for opioid abusers. If that were true for cancer, for example, the public would not accept it.

“We would be marching on the Capitol and no one would leave,” he said.


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