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May 26, 2018

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This is an issue of rural prosperity’: Nevada roundtable spotlights opioid epidemic in small communities

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Steve Marcus

Anne Hazlett, left, USDA Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development, speaks on the opioid crisis in rural Nevada during a roundtable discussion at Las Vegas Fire & Rescue Station 106 Friday, March 23, 2018. Michael Willden, chief of staff at Governor Brian Sandoval’s office, listens at right.

Roundtable: Opioid Crisis in Rural Nevada

Anne Hazlett, left, USDA Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development, speaks on the opioid crisis in rural Nevada during a roundtable discussion at Las Vegas Fire & Rescue Station 106 Friday, March 23, 2018. Michael Willden, chief of staff at Governor Brian Sandoval's office, listens  at right. Launch slideshow »

In the last few years, the opioid epidemic has battered every corner of the United States, and its victims come from all walks of life, but rural portions of the country face unique challenges.

It is the type of work in the labor-intensive industries prevalent in small towns — mining, manufacturing, farming — that often leads to injuries that can give rise to opioid prescriptions and subsequent addictions, said Anne Hazlett, an official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It's also the lack of rehabilitation facilities to alternatively treat those injuries, she added, noting that the sometimes dire economic circumstances in rural towns can precipitate depression and self-medication, and the lack of urban-quality mental health facilities can exacerbate the problem.

The epidemic strikes small towns with a decline in productivity and a strain on resources, Hazlett said.

On Friday morning, inside a Las Vegas fire station, Hazlett asked questions but was mostly ears, taking notes as she participated in the Opioid Misuse in Rural Nevada Roundtable attended by around 50.

Although there's been a reduction in the number of fatal opioid overdoses in Nevada (from 2010 to 2016 there was a 17 percent drop), there also has been a 30 percent increase in hospitalizations, according to the USDA.

With an average 94 opioid pain-killer prescriptions per 100 residents, Nevada ranks 36th in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Hawaii has the healthiest ratio (52) and Alabama the worst (143).

The ratio of prescriptions in Mineral and Nye counties in Nevada are much higher (158 and 156), according to Nevada statistics.

Under White House orders, Hazlett was in Nevada on behalf of Donald Trump's administration, which has ramped up its efforts to battle the epidemic. The panel focused on prevention, treatment and recovery.

Trump last week introduced initiatives to reduce opioid demand and overprescription, cutoff supply and also focus on addiction recovery.

Nye County Sheriff Sharon Wehrly discussed some of the opioid-related issues experienced in her jurisdiction.

In a two-year period beginning January 2015, Nye County suffered 26 opioid-related deaths, she said. From the beginning of this year, first responders have been summoned to 69 suicide-threat calls, most involving people with a drug history. “There’s something wrong with that, there’s something seriously wrong with that.”

Recently, during a Nye County prescription drug drop-off event where residents can discard old or unneeded medications, authorities collected 40 pounds of medication, in contrast to the typical 15- to 18-pound pickups, Wehrly said.

Hazlett's visit to the state was part of an effort by the USDA to create partnerships and join state efforts in their battles. “We believe strongly that this is much more than a health issue for rural America, this is an issue of rural prosperity,” she said.

She's been to Pennsylvania and is planning to attend similar events in Oklahoma, Utah, Maine and Kentucky, she said.

The agency's goal is to learn and put a together a toolkit to help other communities take on specific needs, Hazlett said.

“There's a lot of expertise in this room, but perhaps most important, a lot of passion and commitment both to the communities that they work and live in, but also the prosperity of the state,” Hazlett said afterward.