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New task force to address Utah's 'opi-demic'



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SALT LAKE CITY — In Utah today, there is a family planning a funeral for a loved one who died of an opiod overdose.

And Dr. Jennifer Plumb, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah and a member of the Division of Pediatric Emergency Medicine at Primary Children's Hospital, says the same will be true tomorrow — and the next day, and the day after that.

"Every day here in Utah, someone is planning a funeral. Someone today is planning a funeral. Someone tomorrow is going to be planning a funeral. That may be a teenager. That may be a mom. That may be a most beloved spouse or significant other. A child. Someone who is so very dear and cared about is no longer with us today,” she said.

On Friday, Plumb joined other health care professionals and law enforcement officials to announce the creation of a new task force aimed at addressing Utah's opioid epidemic.

Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and Brian Besser, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Utah, held a press conference at the state Capitol to announce the creation of the task force that will tackle what has been penned as an "opi-demic."

Utah currently toggles between seventh and eighth in the nation for the most opioid-related overdose deaths, Besser said. Six people fatally overdose in Utah every week due to opioids, Reyes added. More people die in Utah from overdosing than those killed in car crashes or from gunshot wounds.

He acknowledged Friday that there have been other task forces and collaborations in Utah with people "working tirelessly" in attempting to tackle the epidemic.

"This task force, we believe, is the next step. The next natural evolution in the collaborative process," Reyes said.

The task force, which will meet over the next several months to generate ideas, will involve members of the medical profession, law enforcement from the local, state and federal level, and more. NAACP head Jenetta Williams, who will also be on the task force, was present for Friday's press conference.


Every day here in Utah, someone is planning a funeral. Someone today is planning a funeral. Someone tomorrow is going to be planning a funeral. That may be a teenager. That may be a mom. That may be a most beloved spouse or significant other. A child. Someone who is so very dear and cared about is no longer with us today.

–Dr. Jennifer Plumb, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah


Besser said what makes it different from other task forces in the past was that it was an eclectic group of people.

"We have so many different specialists and so many different folks from this gamut, we want this task force to be as holistic and comprehensive and well-rounded as possible,” he said.

"This group is a bipartisan group, it’s a nonpartisan group because it’s really not a partisan issue. It’s a people issue,” Reyes added.

Besser also on Friday repeated what's become a common theme for local and state officials alike: that the state cannot arrest its way out of the situation.

"We’re fooling ourselves if we think that we’re going to try and address this issue just strictly, singularly, through law enforcement efforts. That’s why we’re trying to look at this from a more holistic perspective,” he said.

Not every person using opioids is a "bad guy," Besser said. He referred to the two teens who overdosed in Park City last fall from using the drug known on the street as "pink."

"That devastated that community. It just devastated it. We want to get out in front of these problems before they occur. There’s an undercurrent of drug use there that was going on, we should have been ahead of it to intercept that problem before it hit the street,” he said. "Two kids died. I don’t take that lightly.

But Besser said there are also "predators" among those who are addicted to prescription medications and heroin, and are just waiting to feed that addiction for their own profit.

"They’re evil people. And they’re slinging their poison out here,” he said.

Besser said the DEA bust of a massive fentenyl pill-making operation in Cottonwood Heights last year, where a man was manufacturing millions of pills, is an example of those predators.

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"Those pills were responsible for killing people. We’re quite certain of that. Can we quantify or qualify that statement? No. But it’s just like saying if you shoot a shotgun into a crowd, you’re going to hit somebody. And that’s exactly what happened here. This individual was driven by greed and profit and he was willfully blind that he was hurting people,” he said.

Both Besser and Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes said they hope the task force will be able to secure federal money to assist with areas such as treatment.

Plumb said it will take years to solve the problem in Utah. Until then, her goal is to help keep people alive. Over the past 21 months, naloxone — an opiate antidote that helps people who have stopped breathing due to an opiate-related drug overdose start breathing again — has been used in Utah 1,351 times by non-medical professionals to save a life.

She said it's a statistic that is both amazing and scary. Plumb said she knows of stories of grandmothers using naloxone to save their grandchildren, and mothers saving their children multiple times.

"These are unprecedented times,” she said.

Plumb says she loves what she does, but said, "I don’t want this job forever. I would love it if I’m no longer needed here."

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Pat Reavy

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