The Alliance for a drug-free Owensboro & Daviess County steering committee met Tuesday to discuss ongoing substance abuse issues across the area. With the recent outbreak of vaping and e-cigarette-related lung illnesses and deaths making headlines in recent weeks, the committee focused a large portion of Tuesday’s meeting on local students who’ve taken to the habit.
According to steering committee officials, the issue with vaping-related lung illnesses has hit closer to home for parents who have children in the local school systems. A Henderson County student was recently diagnosed with a case of the mysterious lung illness and is set to receive a lung transplant in the future.
That Henderson student marks the first confirmed case of this lung illness in the state of Kentucky, although the Kentucky Department for Public Health (KDPH) has recorded 28 cases reported for investigation, of which three have been ruled out and six have been deemed probable.
Patients experiencing this lung illness are experiencing respiratory symptoms including cough, shortness of breath and fatigue, according to data from the KDPH, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).
“In most cases, these symptoms worsen over a period of days or weeks before admission to the hospital,” the report states. “Some patients have also reported fever, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, chest pain and loss of appetite.”
The cause of the illness has not yet been determined, but all reported cases have a history of using e-cigarettes, the report says. Most of the identified cases have used e-cig products containing THC.
As of Oct. 8, at least 1,299 confirmed and probable cases across 49 states plus the U.S. Virgin Islands have been reported, including 26 deaths. Most of the cases have occurred in youth and young adults.
Green River District Health Department Education Coordinator Rebecca Horn said officials in Owensboro and Daviess County do not have a good handle on the local issue with teen vaping. However, Horn said, Owensboro is not alone in this. After meeting with health officials from across the country at a recent conference, Horn realized nobody had an answer on how to combat the growing trend.
“We’re not behind,” she said. “Nobody knows a whole lot. We’re all still looking for the answer.”
Horn said the issue is even worse because recent data shows that 40 percent of students who vape have never used other drugs or substances in the past, meaning the e-cig trend is affecting a vast group of high schoolers, and even middle schoolers, who aren’t prone to abusing drugs and/or alcohol.
“Both school resource officers have done a great job,” Horn said. “Some states have gone as far as banning flavored e-cig juices. Education in school is [imperative]. We have to make this not normal — something that, as a society, we won’t accept. That’s what we need to do.”
Debbie Zuerner Johnson, director of community engagement at Owensboro Health said she learned though a conversation with a pulmonologist at the University of Kentucky that serious problems have been seen due to the use of oils in electronic cigarettes. The heated oil solidifies when it gets into lungs, she said of the conversation.
“We’ve got a lot of teens addicted to nicotine,” she said. “The 14 and 15-year-olds are the ones buying it from other people, so they’re the ones getting [e-cigs that are laced with other substances].”
Ohio County has reported meth being laced into some of their e-cigs, Horn said.
With no easy answer in sight, the committee brought up the idea of holding a Rooster Booster event with the e-cig issue at its focus. Though the event would require sponsorships and monetary donations from members of the community to pull off, the committee agreed that making the issue public to more people might be the best way of getting the community’s attention.
But, for now, local officials are in the same quagmire as the rest of the nation.
“I hate to do these meetings with parents because they’re going to freak out, and I don’t have anything to tell them — I really don’t,” Horn said.