The year 2017 was not a good one regarding death statistics in Surry County, which suffered a record number of fatalities from causes including drug overdoses, suicides and fires.
“This is the worst year we’ve ever had for unnatural deaths,” Surry County Emergency Services Director and Medical Examiner John Shelton said Friday in releasing 2017 figures that reflect disturbing trends.
“We had a rough year — we did,” Shelton stressed.
Opioids top “killer”
Leading the way was 55 fatalities from drug overdoses, which the local public safety official says is “absolutely” an all-time record for the county and is part of a growing epidemic gripping the nation as a whole. Overdose deaths in 2016 totaled 32 in Surry.
Shelton said one bright spot for the year-end figures in that segment involves the wider distribution of Narcan, a medication used to block the effects of opioid overdoses. It was increasingly used during 2017 by local law enforcement officers, EMS personnel and first-responders, thereby saving some overdose victims.
“So it could have been a lot higher,” Shelton said of the fatality figure in the absence of that antidote.
“The opioid use in the county, that is the number one killer,” he continued. “But there’s still an enormous amount of cocaine and meth in the county that’s being used — sometimes people use two, three or all of the above.”
Another drug increasingly has come to the forefront as a substitute for opioids.
“Heroin is on the rise in the county for sure,” Shelton said of that substance, “because it’s easier for them (users) to obtain than buying the pills.”
Patients do have legitimate needs for pain killers, due to accidents or maybe a chronic back problem, Shelton agrees.
“The problem is a lot of people we have seen have not been able to get away from them and continued with its use,” he said of those who become addicted to a drug after their pain issues subside.
The local official thinks there should be a way to terminate the supply at some point for those who are prescribed medications.
Suicide, other causes
• Suicides also spiked sharply during 2017, with 25 such incidents occurring compared to 15 in 2016, a rise blamed on multiple factors.
• “We had 11 fire deaths last year, which is extremely abnormal,” Shelton said of a trend similarly noted across North Carolina. “And I don’t know what caused that.”
Some years can simply be bad ones for fire fatalities for no apparent reason, according to the public safety official.
• “There were 18 deaths that were considered accidental,” Shelton said of another category.
• Surry County had seven homicides during 2017.
• “There were 29 gunshot wounds in the county that we responded to,” Shelton said of emergency crews, not counting some victims who showed up at hospitals with wounds.
• Twenty-four cutting incidents were logged.
• Also during 2017, 985 calls were run by EMS crews for falls.
Motor vehicle deaths drop
Shelton said Surry County had 14 traffic-related deaths during 2017, a decline from the previous year. “We usually have more of those,” he said of annual results in general.
One reason for last year’s decrease is similar to how Narcan kept overdose deaths from being higher: a quicker and better response to emergencies.
In the case of traffic accidents, the EMS leader believes improved trauma care is being delivered at the scene by paramedics, thus increasing the survival rate.
“The care that was given on scene made a big difference in the patient outcomes,” Shelton said concerning vehicular deaths. “Those could have been much higher.”
EMS crews responded to 1,383 traffic accidents last year which were reported to involve personal injuries.
The total number of calls run for all categories has not been tallied, but Shelton said it will exceed the more than 26,000 responses registered in 2016.
Heart attacks, strokes
In detailing statistics for the county last year, Shelton mentioned that a troubling scenario was evident among certain natural health issues — including cases of heart attacks, strokes and respiratory distress. All were up in 2017.
“We answered a thousand heart attack calls last year and 363 strokes,” Shelton said.
Added to that were 954 respiratory distress incidents.
“When I look at the natural causes for the year, we were up in just about every category,” Shelton said.
He said this can be blamed on multiple factors.
“Diabetes is up in the county,” Shelton of one cause. People with diabetes are more likely to have certain conditions, or risk factors, that increase the chances of heart disease or strokes, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
“A lot of this is attributable to lifestyle,” Shelton said of natural death causes. “A lot of it is poor health choices that have resulted in a lot of the illnesses (calls) that we run sometimes.”
Shelton says one element linked to various medical conditions relates to the effects from previous drug use by individuals which has come back to haunt them.
“People in their 30s are having a lot of health issues from their past drug use,” he said, “everything from liver disorders to kidney disorders to heart disorders.”
Mental health factor
Last year’s fatalities involve more than physical conditions.
Especially with suicides, mental health issues such as depression are a root cause, along with drug abuse, according to Shelton.
“Mental health in the state is a huge issue,” he observed. ‘The resources are very, very thin anywhere in the state for treatment of mental health.”
Meanwhile, greater numbers of people are afflicted by various ailments.
“The number is significantly higher from what it used to be,” Shelton said, but “there is really no good resource for their treatment or rehabilitation.”
We’re on it
“All the agencies in the county are addressing it heavily,” Shelton said of the void surrounding mental health treatment. “It’s badly needed in the county.”
The same attention is being devoted to drugs, particularly as it relates to mental health since “a lot of it is directly connected to drug abuse,” Shelton said.
“We’re all working together,” he said of various agencies in Surry, which are hampered by a lack of resources.
Headway is being made, however, with some agencies agreeing to do drug counseling to head off problems associated with abuse. Hospice officials recently have come on board since they sometimes deal with drug-related deaths.
Among others involved are law enforcement, health agencies and local schools.
The educational component includes conveying some hard facts to young people about where drug abuse can lead them. “What’s going to happen to you if you get involved with this, and this is what the end is,” Shelton said of that message.
“It’s a concern of all the agencies,” he said of ongoing efforts to address drug, mental health and other problems.
“The bottom line with this is it’s going to take the entire county working together to solve all of this.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.