The State of California called Plumas County Public Health to ask a favor — an honor really. Since Plumas County became the county in the state with the best track record of dealing with opioid addiction, might it help others do so as well? Share its successes and be a model others can learn from?
That’s a tall order, of course, but Plumas County Public Health was up to the task. The conference focused on rural topics in a rural setting with funding from the state for the one-time conference.
That was the seed idea that got the ball rolling for Plumas County Public Health Services to play host to 115 people representing various counties and agencies in California, Nevada and Oregon, as well as the Midwest and even France to converge on Quincy on Aug. 27 through 29 to learn from each other how to best address opioid addiction in their areas.
From 2011 to 2014, Plumas County had the dubious honor of having the worst opioid addiction problem in the state. The county has turned itself around. Others wanted to know how.
It was by all accounts a rousing success. Public Health Health Education Coordinator James Wilson attributed the success to the comprehensive approach his agency took in presenting their approach — one that emphasizes harm reduction, prevention and partnerships with other agencies.
“James Wilson is being modest, but the coalitions of people and partnerships we have are doing tremendous work — that’s why California honors and recognizes Plumas County as a leader,” said Plumas County Health Education Coordinator Zach Revene. Wilson has brought together law enforcement, the district attorney and public health agencies for buy-in and support to tackle the addiction epidemic together.
Andrew Woodruff, acting director at Plumas County Public Health Agency, had this to say, “Rural communities have a special ability to work together to respond to the local health needs. Harm reduction is not a new concept, it’s embedded in the work that health departments are already continuously doing: making changes (programmatic, policy-related, structural) to improve the population’s health.”
It’s the partnerships that make tackling this epidemic in Plumas County unique.
“The consistency of partnership building, and being a stable entity, the state knows it can count on Plumas County,” said Wilson.
What made the conference successful in both Wilson’s and Revene’s estimation was the realistic and bare bones approach that can often be lacking in purely academic sessions. Presenters like Matt Curtis, opened a dialogue for the attendees to talk about what was happening in their regions. The presenters often presented straight from real life situations — one woman with her own past struggles with addiction stood out to organizer Revene.
“Addiction is touching everyone’s lives. The conference addressed not just the academics of it, but the real experience of it,” said Revene. A formerly homeless woman described health agency officials in another town handing out condoms to be safe. What would have made her safe she said, was a blanket, so she didn’t feel the need to have to go home with someone.
Controversy often follows the concept of “harm reduction” — the idea that given realistic addict behavior one must address the issue not in punishment or abstinence, but in trying to make the ill-advised and often illegal activity less unsafe for the addict.
An anecdote that stays with Revene is from a presenter who likened harm reduction with addicts to teaching sex education with abstinence only. That works until it doesn’t work. There are more gradations than black and white. Clean and sober. Harm reduction seeks to bridge the in between.
Other analogies that sat with Revene and Wilson? Every time there’s a car race at American Valley Speedway, there’s emergency medical staff at the ready. So, they would argue, why not also be ready for this type of dangerous activity, too? Harm reduction acknowledges that between addiction and abstinence is where most addicts live.
They discussed addressing opposition to helping addicts maintain some semblance of safety while using. Many communities frown upon needle exchange programs and other ideas aimed at getting addicts to be safer in their activities to stop the spread of HIV and other diseases. “We have science-based, health-based outcomes,” said Revene. “This is keeping people safe.”
A particularly helpful aspect of the conference was the specificity of addressing addiction in rural communities and acknowledging that small communities have different needs and that addiction looks different here. Many of the conference attendees also came from rural areas and were eager to share information and stories involving struggles of addiction that is particular to rural areas.
The rural county representatives were able to exchange information on planning and engagement with their communities and to look at the potential impacts harm reduction programs could have in the area.
“We have what it takes in this community to prevent more individuals and families from suffering these avoidable consequences. To do this, we must acknowledge that many people may not ever stop using drugs, but rather that people who use drugs are part of the rich fabric of our community and they deserve access to services so they may live safe and dignified lives,” said Woodruff.
In addition to the content of the conference came the smooth logistics. They set the conference downtown in three locations: Town Hall Theatre, West End Theatre and the Quincy Library Conference Room. The three locations ensured that out-of-town conference attendees could put the agency’s experience in the context of Quincy. In this way too, the location meant that conference attendees walking to and from the conference sessions would be walking by restaurants and stores in Quincy. A mini-tourist promotion, if you will.
They could see hosting such an event again in the future.
“We loved seeing it up there on the marquee at the Town Hall Theatre,” said Revene. Lunches were made by Carey Candy Co. and snacks provided by Sean Connery’s culinary students from Feather River College. “We encouraged everyone to go downtown and see our town,” said Wilson.
Local videographer Diego Lozano filmed the conference and a public Plumas County Public Health Opioid Conference YouTube channel has been set up for viewers with uploads of the sessions for public viewing.