Alexander County takes proactive approach to battle addiction and overdoses with PORT program
TAYLORSVILLE, NC (January 31, 2024) ⇒ In response to the challenges posed by drug addiction and the alarming rise in overdose incidents, Alexander County is taking action to address this pressing public health crisis through the creation of the Post-Overdose Response Team (PORT) and Community Paramedic program.
Shannon Childers, who has worked with Alexander County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) for the past seven years, was named the PORT/Community Paramedic in October 2023. Since that time, he has provided “boots on the ground” support for overdose victims and their families.
“We give people hope. Addiction is a terrible mental disease and most people don’t even know the damage they’re causing to themselves and their families,” Childers related. “This program lets them know about the available resources that can help them get through their addiction.”
The Alexander County Board of Commissioners, Substance Use Disorder Coalition, County Manager Shane Fox, and EMS Director Jeff Sigmon saw and understood the need for the PORT program as overdoses have risen drastically over the past few years. In 2023, there were 152 overdoses with 14 deaths, compared to 96 overdoses in 2022 and 83 overdoses in 2021.
“Out of the 152 overdoses, an even scarier number is what we don’t know – those unexposed addictions,” Childers, age 44 of the Sugar Loaf community, said. “If you know someone who has a problem, let them know there is hope and help in this community. We will walk through every battle with them to get them the help they need.”
The PORT program is funded with Opioid Settlement Funding which resulted from litigation against several pharmaceutical companies and manufacturers for their role in creating the opioid epidemic. Alexander County will receive approximately $6 million over the next 18 years.
“I’m proud of our county’s leadership that put this program in place. I love Alexander County more than any place in the world, and I want to see our people live healthy, productive lives,” he said.
When someone experiences an overdose, Childers will go to the home as soon as possible (within 72 hours) to meet and talk with the person and the family about getting help and seeking recovery from addiction.
“PORT/Community Paramedic is a new program initiated by the state and implemented by the county to help curb deaths and addictions, and to help with recovery,” Childers said. “I’m here for those in need, so please reach out. This is a judgment-free zone; we just want to help.”
The opioid epidemic has killed a lot of people, both young and old, including rural areas such as Alexander County. On a per capita basis, Childers said Alexander County is comparable to surrounding counties in terms of the overdose rate.
“A friend of mine lost his life last year due to opioid use, so I’ve experienced personal loss, which makes this job even more relatable and significant,” Childers said. “The death caused by opioid use in our wonderful community is horrible. I’ve been in some of their homes and it makes me sad. I am here to let folks know about the dangers and what drugs have done to our community.”
How does one become addicted to drugs, and at some point, experience an overdose? Childers said he believes that most drug users begin with marijuana, and then progress to pills, fentanyl, heroin, or methamphetamine.
“Trends are continuing to rise because of the mental health crisis that we’re going through in our society. I believe the COVID-19 pandemic damaged our society, both socially and mentally, resulting in increased alcohol and drug abuse,” Childers said. “It’s hard to say if the drug-use trend will ever decline, but we must be hopeful.”
Childers said EMS personnel cannot access drug-screening information from those who were admitted to the hospital, but he is confident that most overdoses involve fentanyl these days.
“In my role, I can work with these families to get the drug data, which helps us to provide better assistance to the overdose victims,” Childers related.
He said fentanyl is a relatively inexpensive synthetic opioid, which was used to “cut” other drugs, but now the drug is being sold as 100% fentanyl, which is a danger in itself.
“Fentanyl can be a useful drug as a pain reliever in traumatic injury situations. If you think back to 1996, oxycontin was used for a good purpose – pain relief. Oxy is still out there, but fentanyl is so much more potent,” Childers stated. “The main thing that folks must remember is that medicines should be taken as prescribed.”
Childers wants families to understand that there are dangerous drugs that are being sold “on the street,” and encourages vigilance.
“Fentanyl is now being processed and sold by drug dealers. Many times, people don’t even know what they’re taking because it could be laced with something. It’s a dangerous guessing game,” he said. “Statistics show that there is enough fentanyl pulled off the streets in one year that would kill everyone in the United States, as it is 100 times stronger than morphine.”
Since PORT’s origin in Alexander County, one of the first steps was to increase the availability of Narcan (naloxone), which can reverse an opioid overdose. Local agencies including EMS and the Sheriff’s Office have naloxone on hand to treat overdose victims and save their lives.
“Narcan is an opioid antagonist, meaning it removes the drug from those receptors in the brain,” Childers explained. “It used to take only one milligram of Narcan to reverse the opioids’ effects in an overdose situation, but nowadays we might have to use 20 milligrams to save someone’s life. These drugs are very powerful and folks need to understand the dangers.”
Unfortunately, there is a newer drug that is being abused – xylazine, also known as tranq. This is a horse tranquilizer and is very powerful – and Narcan is useless in reversing its deadly effects. It is also being combined with opioids, including fentanyl, making a deadly drug cocktail.
Statistics show that 68 percent of drug users are male, with an average age of 38 years old; however, there is a rise in drug use among the younger population.
Childers encourages parents to be especially aware of differences in their children’s behavior to recognize potential drug use, including distancing themselves, being secretive, appearing intoxicated, etc.
“What do you want for your kids? A good, long life? Or a life of drugs, poor health, violence, crime, or even an early death?” Childers asked. “It’s important to be a strong, loving parent for these children who are experiencing peer pressure and mental health issues.”
While some people have suicidal thoughts and purposely attempt to overdose, Childers said most are just seeking a “high” but they use too much or they get drugs that contain fentanyl or other deadly drugs.
“They do drugs trying to find peace or happiness amid their problems. We all have problems, so how do we cope with it?” Childers asked. “Drugs and alcohol are not the way.”
He said that most drugs cause the release of dopamine in the brain, some at 10 times the normal amount, and then the addiction cycle begins as users seek that feeling again and again.
“The pleasure zone in our brain drives us and tells us this drug will take the pain away. With fentanyl, a person will take it regardless of their safety,” Childers stated. “I am here to tell you that fentanyl will kill you or your loved one – it’s like playing Russian roulette. We must be safe and educate everyone on the dangers of these drugs.”
How does the PORT program work? Childers typically works Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. When an overdose call comes in during regular hours, he will go to the home immediately, but always within the first 72 hours after 9-1-1 was called. If after-hours, Childers will visit the home the next day unless he is specifically requested sooner.
“I talk with the family, and the victim if they are able, about opportunities for recovery. I want to meet them where they are to ask them if they are getting help, talk about their problem, and connect them with community resources,” Childers said. “Many times, they are very receptive. I want them to know that I’m just here to help. I care, and the community cares.”
During a home visit, he will distribute an overdose kit which includes Narcan and test kits.
In addition to the initial visit, there are follow-up visits which are conducted in a non-threatening manner to continue to provide support, discuss their situation, and get the patient on the road to recovery.
Since the PORT program began in October 2023, Childers has 43 patients that he regularly visits.
Childers shared a success story from the PORT program about a 44-year-old male who has struggled with addiction for most of his life. Childers visited him at the Alexander County Detention Center, where the man shared his long history of drug abuse, including marijuana, pills, methamphetamine, and most recently, fentanyl.
“This man has overdosed 23 times and almost everyone had given up on him. I was allowed to visit him in our jail and talk about recovery. We were able to relocate him to an out-of-county facility. Thankfully, he is now in his third month of recovery!” Childers said with a smile. “He was afraid to be here for fear of relapsing. He is now achieving the overall goal of overcoming addiction! I’m so proud of him.”
Childers expressed his appreciation to Sheriff Chad Pennell, Detention Center Supervisor Mike Lunsford, and Pretrial Release Director Anita Price for connecting him with clients who are in need of recovery and education.
“I can’t say enough about the leadership in this community. Their love for the citizens of Alexander County is tremendous,” Childers said. “There are no boundaries to what they will do to keep our community safe. It’s a blessing to see everyone working together to help those in need.”
In addition to the PORT program, Childers also serves as the Community Paramedic. In this role, he provides services through the Department of Social Services, EMS, Sheriff’s Office, doctor’s offices, and more. Services include patient care, managing chronic conditions, transportation, and more. He also provides educational services in the community such as CPR, mental health, advice, and assistance.
“We must all work together to create an awareness of the imminent dangers of drugs in Alexander County. These people who are using drugs are on a very dangerous path which can lead to addiction, overdose, and even death,” Childers emphasized. “Please be observant of your children, your family members, and your friends. We can help them.”
For more information about the Post-Overdose Response Team (PORT)/Community Paramedic program, please contact Childers at (828) 352-7824 or email@example.com.