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County Commissioners approve First Responders Week For April, Discuss Opioid Settlement And Invasive Plant Species

By Zack Hill

The Watauga County Commissioners met on Tuesday, March 7, to discuss several agenda items including the introduction of Watauga County First Responders Week, dispersement of an opioid settlement agreement and details of an evolving plan to tackle invasive plant species.

Commissioners Ray Russell, Braxton Eggers and Todd Castle were in attendance as well as chairman Larry Turnbow and vice-chairman Charlie Wallin.

The commissioners voted unanimously to make April 24-30 Watauga County First Responders Week to recognize first responders valuable role in keeping the community safe while also highlighting the need for first responders to get the mental healthcare that their high stress jobs need at times.

Valerie Mailman of the First Responders Wellness Coalition spoke about the difficulty first responders can encounter when looking for mental healthcare.

“There’s virtually no competent, qualified mental healthcare for first responders in the High Country,” Mailman said. “There’s also a lot of stigma, which is why we’re here tonight.”

“We’re committed to bringing our community together to break that down. And bringing our community together to do something about it,” Mailman continued. “With our first responders always being here for our community we feel like we should be there for them. To recognize and celebrate them, while a week is not enough to do that, it’s certainly an amazing way to do that.”

The commissioners passed the resolution unanimously.

“I’m very appreciative of it,” said commissioner Braxton Eggers. “I have a lot of buddies who work in law enforcement. You can’t address the stigma [of mental health needs] if you don’t know it exists…The stressors of being a first responder is something we don’t all know what it’s like to be every day.”

The coalition will also host an Appalachian Theatre screening of “PTSD 911”, a documentary about post-traumatic stress disorder among first responders, on April 27.

The commissioners also discussed a recent settlement regarding the opioid epidemic that has taken place in the high country, as in many other places in the country.

The money comes from a 26 billion dollar settlement reached between the national authorities and three major pharmaceutical companies: Cardinal, McKesson, and AmerisourceBergen.

Watauga County is receiving $116,211.44 from the first release of settlement funds.

Jennifer Greene, AppHealthCare director of public health, spoke to the commissioners about the crisis as well as how to best use the funds.

“We have to get better at identifying the problems before there’s an overdose,” Greene said. It’s a community problem man, it can be a generational thing, which is hwy it’s really important to do long-term planning.”

“Nobody wakes up and says, ‘Hey, I want to be addicted to drugs.’ There are a lot of reasons people might end up like that and we want to have strategies at both ends of the spectrum: save them from overdoses and prevent it from happening in the first place.”

Commissioner Ray Russell shared that his own father had struggled with addiction saying “99.9 percent of people outside the family would have no idea about it. The stereotype didn’t fit.”

Greene agreed, saying, “It’s important we come together and don’t use stereotypes and create a place where people can ask for help. Prevention is important because we don’t want to continue fighting the problem—we want to stop it.”

The commissioners also heard from Debbie Shetterly of the High Country Habitat and Restoration Coalition. Shetterly presented information about the many problems with invasive species in the area.

Shetterly pointed to the “more important reasons to fight monocultures of invasive species: increased fire danger and erosion and flooding” among other factors.

“And from economic standpoint it’s a danger to people hiking [specifically tourists who hike] when you have something like Oriental bittersweet which can take down a tree on a hiking trail,” Shetterly said. “From the standpoint of making sure we don’t have a tree falling on trails or on hikers.”

Shetterly said two major species, Oriental bittersweet and Japanese knotweed, are currently the biggest threats to ecological stability in most parts of the region but that there are close to 30 others.

Shetterly said the coalition would be working with North Carolina Grant money as well as the American Conservation Experience to apply herbicides that don’t affect water systems.

Commissioner Larry Turnbow expressed his appreciation for the Shetterly and the coalition’s work saying, “We look forward to following your work and the process. Thank you.”

Photo A: (L to R) Lauren Wilson, Tim Fox and Valerie Mailman of the Responder Wellness Coalition present at the meeting.