Wednesday, 16 June 2021 20:48

OPIOID EPIDEMIC: Steve's Wings seeks to raise awareness of overdoses in Richmond County

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OPIOID EPIDEMIC: Steve's Wings seeks to raise awareness of overdoses in Richmond County Pixabay

ROCKINGHAM — If Melissa Schoonover hadn’t left the Richmond County Rescue Squad, there’s a chance she would have responded to the call when her father died of a drug overdose.


Steve Odom “had the American Dream,” Schoonover recalled in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon, but he became addicted to pain pills following a wreck when his daughter was younger.

Odom was “already sick” and “suffered from a lot of health issues” when he overdosed on Jan. 26, 2020.

Several months later, Schoonover formed the group Steve’s Wings to help raise awareness of what she calls an “epidemic.”

“It’s getting bad,” she said regarding a rise in overdose deaths in recent years.

According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Opioid Action Plan Data Dashboard, the number of opioid-related deaths in Richmond County spiked at 11 in 2015 at a rate of 24.2 — higher than the state average of 10.5. As of September of 2020, there had been eight for the year.

The state’s metrics include deaths caused by prescription opioids, heroin and other synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

In 2020, there were 76 opioid overdose emergency department visits in Richmond County, among the highest in the state, according to DHHS.

Schoonover said she believes the number of actual non-fatal overdoses is higher because some addicts have and use Narcan themselves, so the incidents go unreported.

A recent post circulating on Facebook purported to warn residents of more than 100 pounds of fentanyl-laced marijuana hitting the streets in Laurinburg.

However, Capt. Randy Dover with the Scotland County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday that the best investigators can gather, the post originated in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

SPECIAL CALLING

Growing up, Schoonover said she had wanted to be an actress.

One of her other life goals was to be an EMT, for which she eventually became certified during her on-and-off decade with the rescue squad.

However, she said her father wanted her to be a substance abuse counselor.

“I had been around drugs all my life and didn’t want a part of it,” she said.

Schoonover is now working toward that goal, following a “sign from God.”

“I know this is what I’m meant to do,” she said.

Schoonover said she has several family members who are addicted to drugs and people ask, “How can you help other people when you can’t help your own family?”

One of the first things you learn, she said, is that it’s harder to help family and close friends because of the emotional connection.

Overdoses have become so common recently, Schoonover said when the phone rings, her daughter asks, “Who was it this time?”

“That’s not normal,” she said.

‘OUT TO MAKE A CHANGE’

Since forming Steve’s Wings about a year ago, Schoonover said she has connected with family members of other Richmond County residents who have overdosed.

“I know the drugs are never going away,” she said, adding that the team has a “long list” of concerns that “need to be addressed.”

One is the establishment of a drug court in Richmond County, which would require random drug testing, meetings and treatment for first-time offenders instead of jail time.

According to a 2008 report from the National Institute of Justice, “researchers in several studies found that drug courts reduced recidivism among program participants in contrast to comparable probationers,” as well as lowered costs.

Schoonover said the group also wants to crack down on drug dealers and strengthen the state’s death by distribution law.

Days before Odom’s death, then-20-year-old Regina Collins was charged with the relatively new law in the death of Chance Lamont Lammonds.

The death by distribution law was signed by Gov. Roy Cooper July 8, 2019 and went into effect Dec. 1 that year.

Sen. Tom McInnis and then-Rep. Scott Brewer both voted to approve the bill in their respective chambers, legislative records show.

The intent of the law is to “to act as a greater deterrent to persons who want to illegally distribute opioids and further exacerbate the opioid epidemic,” following a dramatic increase in overdose deaths over the past 20 years, according to the text.

The controlled substances covered by the law include opiates, cocaine and methamphetamine.

Doctors and pharmacists are shielded from prosecution under the law.

The Wilmington StarNews reported in 2019 that the state already had a law in place to charge drug dealers with second-degree murder, but the new law doesn’t require prosecutors to prove malice.

Records with the N.C. Department of Public Safety Division of Adult Correction show Collins was convicted Aug. 6, 2020 of involuntary manslaughter and began serving an active sentence Oct. 7.

Collins was released from prison May 20 of this year and is on parole until Feb. 14 next year.

“We don’t feel there should be plea deals” for death by distribution cases or for drug dealers, Schoonover said, adding that her group advocates for an automatic 10-year sentence for dealers. “Most likely they’ve already killed somebody with what they sell.”

The group also wants the Richmond County Health Department periodically to publicly display overdose statistics, much like it has during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re tired of it being pushed to the side,” she said.

RALLY FOR THE CAUSE

Steve’s Wings is planning an overdose awareness rally for Aug. 14.

The event will include a march from the old courthouse, down East Franklin Street, around to East Washington Street and looping back around.

Within the past few days since announcing the rally, Schoonover said interest has grown from a few people to a few hundred.

“I’m thankful, but shocked,” she said, adding that she’s had requests for T-shirts from as far away as Ohio and attendance confirmation from residents in South Carolina.

She said she thought that most people didn’t care about the issue, but she’s come to find out that they just didn’t know what to do or how to make a stand.

“We’re trying to touch everybody with this,” she said, not just recovering addicts and families of those who have died from overdoses.

Schoonover is also trying to recruit more team members to help with advocacy efforts.

Her goal for Steve’s Wings is to not just be a local movement, but possibly go national.

“I’m out to make a change.”