Flags lowered to honor Delaware lives lost to the opioid crisis

Penny Rogers

Penny Rogers talks about her son Vincent, who died of an overdose in 2017, at a ceremony honoring hundreds of Delawareans lost to the opioid epidemic. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

As they took turns slowly turning the cranks to lower the U.S., Delaware, and county flags, family members of those who have died from overdose honored their loved ones Friday morning.

It was the second year for the somber ceremony outside the New Castle County government headquarters in New Castle.

The annual ceremony is the brainchild of Penny Rogers, who was looking for a way to honor her son Vincent and the hundreds of others who die each year in Delaware due to drug overdose. She convinced County Executive Matt Meyer to host the event after sending him a Facebook message last year.

“This is not going to cure the disease of addiction, but this is going to give people who don’t really understand that addiction is a disease a moment to pause and, God willing, educate themselves,” Rogers said. “The lowering of the flags today is a symbol of [Meyer’s] commitment to breaking the stigma.”

People who’ve lost loved ones to overdose and those who work to help those families took turns lowering flags to half-staff outside New Castle County government’s headquarters Friday morning. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Since the death of her son from a heroin overdose in 2017, Rogers has become executive director of Face the Facts, a group that provides resources and information to those facing addiction or trying to help loved ones.

“While we know Delaware has a tremendous amount of work to do, we must stop and celebrate moments like this,” she said. “I’m beyond blessed to work in the addiction community with so many people that are here today that I sometimes forget the stigma of addiction is alive and ugly.”

She said part of her mission is to get people beyond thinking of overdose victims as “junkies,” and see them as real people struggling with a disease.

“The stigma is still real when it comes to death. People don’t want to acknowledge that their loved one has been lost to an overdose or things related to addiction,” Rogers said. “Behind every death is someone’s son, their daughter, their mom, their dad.”

Delaware has recorded 214 suspected overdose deaths so far this year, nearly one every day for the first 239 days of 2021. During the pandemic lockdown for much of last year, there were 447 overdose deaths in the state, an increase from 431 in 2019. Heroin was found in 94 of those deaths, while cocaine was connected to 152 deaths.

Nationally, 93,000 people died from overdose, a 29% increase from the previous year’s high of 72,000.

President Joe Biden issued a proclamation Friday remembering those who have been lost to overdose deaths as he marked Overdose Awareness Week.

“Overdose Awareness Week provides us an opportunity to recommit ourselves to addressing this epidemic. By enhancing our support for individuals facing substance use disorder, we can save lives,” Biden said in the resolution.

As part of the ceremony, Meyer announced plans for a study of addiction, overdose deaths, and the county’s response.

“To look at what’s changed in recent years through the pandemic and how we can most effectively organize our response going forward,” Meyer said. “We’re bringing in an outside firm to take an unbiased look at the work you’re all doing and we’re all doing together to identify where the gaps are and how we move things forward so that so many families across our community can end up with greater outcomes.”

Rogers said they’re already making plans to hold similar ceremonies in all three of Delaware’s counties next year.

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