JEFFERSONVILLE — The first night of Clark County CARES Drug Facts Week kicked off with a panel of people who six or seven years ago, might not have been sitting at the same table focused on the same issue.
But over the past five years, people from different sectors — health care, law enforcement, the courts system and many in the community at large — have come together to work on ways to address the opioid crisis and all that it's touched, including those on Monday's panel.
"I think it says we're doing what we need to do," Brad Jacobs, Clark County Circuit Court No. 2 judge and Clark County CARES chair, said. "We're getting more understanding out there, we're reducing the stigma and trying to be as proactive as we can."
Collaborations include the Clark County syringe exchange program, known as the Interchange, which opened three years ago and in 2019 saw a total of 1,756 clients — those who were coming in to exchange used needles for clean ones for free, get health screenings and access to treatment, if desired.
And while some things like annual hepatitis C cases have been in triple digits since 2015, overdose deaths are down to nearly half what they were when they topped out at 90 in 2016, former Clark County health officer Kevin Burke said during the presentation.
The Clark County judiciary initiated the grant-funded Mental Health Addiction Supervision and Treatment (MAST) program to help incarcerated men and women get treatment, and courts are expanding help. Within the past year, Clark County Circuit Court No. 1 Judge Andrew Adams has initiated two new programs — the Clark County Addiction Treatment and Support program (CCATS), which aims to reduce recidivism by getting people treatment, and the recently funded Southern Indiana Life Improvement Project, which is geared toward getting people linked up with resources not necessarily involved with the courts.
"I'm really pleased to see everybody on the same page," Clark County CARES member Carolyn King said. "I think people had a learning curve in what addiction is, but it also started affecting more and more families...it just got to be a more widespread issue. But I think our constant talking about it, reminding people that these are people, it helps."
Michael Zalat, currently in recovery, was part of the panel discussion; he started in the CCATS program in March after an arrest related to drugs in early 2018. Though he had been in active opioid addiction for years, Zalat said this program — from which he is slated to graduate in about six months — has helped break that cycle.
"Oh, it has helped tremendously," he said. "The accountability, the stability as far as calling to take a drug screen every day. I think that's really important in early sobriety, because there's a lot of triggers, there's a lot of things in life, weak moments.
"I think God put that program in place for me. I said lot of prayers, I think He knew that ultimately that's what I needed was the extra accountability to start out."
Zalat's wife, Stephanie, agreed that the program has been life-changing for their family.
"We've been together seven years; I don't think he'd be sober today if it wasn't for the CCATS program," she said. "And that's just because I know him. Both of our lives have been turned for that."
Jacobs said reaching people like Zalat is why the courts programs are so important — it gives some people a chance to be reached.
"I think Drew's programs in his court are huge, because we don't have the resources to get out into the community and get people at random," he said. "So when we get that funnel and they come into the criminal justice system, we can get ahead of those and maybe keep them from coming back."
Panelists included Brad Jacobs, moderator and Clark Country Circuit Court No. 2 judge, Clark County Sheriff's Col. Scottie Maples, Eric Yazel, Clark County health officer, Kevin Burke, former Clark County health officer, Michael Zalat, in recovery from opioid addiction, Andrew Adams, Clark County Circuit Court No. 1 judge, Denise Poukish, vice president of Forensics Services at LifeSpring Health Systems, and Scott McVoy, assistant chief with the Jeffersonville Police Department.