The opioid crisis in the United States is far reaching, and results in approximately 130 people dying each day, according to the Health Resources and Service Administration.

The crisis affects nearly every community, including rural Utah.

Community leaders hosted a discussion Oct. 17, to explore issues related to the opioid epidemic and its effects on rural Utah. Utah Department of Agriculture and Food Commissioner, Kerry W. Gibson, and USDA Rural Development Director for Utah, Randy Parker, both met with community leaders in Richfield for the discussion.

“Through the USDA, there is some money to help with opioid overdoses,” Parker said. He said the federal government set aside some $5 million for the USDA to help with opioid related issues, with some $386,000 going to Utah. 

“Utah did very well,” Parker said. Sevier County also did well, as much of the money was distributed to the county, including $80,000 for a new ambulance, $68,000 for a transport ambulance, and $21,000 for a pair of emergency medical response vehicles. 

“They were purchased as part of a partnership,” Parker said. 

Working to fight opioid overdoses isn’t what one typically associates with the USDA, Parker said. Many in rural Utah think of the USDA’s role in building water systems. 

However, that’s not the limit of the USDA’s scope.

“I appreciate the president allowing me the opportunity to do this,” Parker said. “This has been an amazing ride.”

The funding to Sevier County also included money for naloxone doses to be on every ambulance in Sevier County. Doses of naloxone are also being placed in the sheriff’s office and in every law enforcement patrol vehicle. 

“It’s for public and officer safety,” Sevier County Sheriff Nate Curtis said.

Naloxone is a drug that can help counteract the effects of an opioid overdose. With fentanyl becoming more common, Curtis said it’s more important now than ever to have the means to protect people from accidental exposures as well as intentional ones.

Fentanyl is a highly potent, synthetic opioid that can be deadly in even tiny doses, Curtis said. He said naloxone can and does save lives, and being able to have doses of it available is vital. Naloxone also has a shelf life of approximately two years, so stocks have to be rotated.

Opioid misuse is also a factor in suicide. 

Curtis said in the same time frame that 14 people have committed suicide in Sevier County, there have been over 200 attempts or threats of suicide. 

“It’s a big deal,” Curtis said. He said in nearly every instance of attempted suicide, there has been a component of drug overdose involved, which makes naloxone an important life saving tool.

The funding for ambulances helps the county in a lot of ways besides just dealing with opioid issue, said Mike Willits, EMS director. He said the ambulance funding will benefit Sevier County and surrounding areas as well.

One example was a bus crash that occurred in Garfield County in September which Sevier and Piute counties both sent resources to in order to help. 

“No funds will be realized from that for years due to litigation,” Willits said. He said EMS services would be out their expenses until the case is heard in the courts.

The USDA often teams with the Utah Department of Agriculture in connecting farmers with loan and grant programs, Parker said. Attacking the opioid problem is compatible with other USDA programs because it’s affecting those who work in agriculture, said Gibson, who was appointed the commissioner of the UDAF earlier this year. 

 “These are people who can’t control the weather, they can’t control the prices they’ll get,” Gibson said. “They’d rather do anything than to ask someone for help … A lot of them are fifth or sixth generation farmers where everyone who came before them was successful.”

Gibson said the UDAF is looking into ways not only to help farmers in the traditional manner of finding resources or grant programs, but also in helping them find ways to help with mental health issues. 

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