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Federal grant going to defibrillators, nursing software and computers in Sullivan schools

BLOUNTVILLE — Sullivan County’s school board has said yes to nearly $2.5 million in federal grant money via Tennessee, and some of it is going to live-saving defibrillators.

The board at its Tuesday meeting voted 5-0 with two absent to accept $2,459,197.24 in federal Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity (ELC) grant funds in exchange for doing COVID testing on students and staff.

The vote also approved spending part of that money on a three-year nursing software contract, computers for that, and new automated external defibrillators to replace ones with expiring batteries that school officials said can’t be replaced. The money also will be used to buy additional AEDs for school locations without them, interim Director of Schools Evelyn Rafalowski said.

A work session on July 29 will address how to spend the rest of the ELC funds and COVID-19 relief funds under the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) 2.0 and 3.0.

The 58 AEDs, at $1,495 each through a cooperative purchasing agreement not requiring bids, plus accessories will cost more than $100,000 while the nursing software and computers will cost $87,000.

The money is in exchange for the school system doing COVID-19 tests on students and adults in the system. It originally was to have been about $1.2 million, but because other systems did not apply, the county system got more, school officials said.

In other matters Tuesday, the board:

• Allowed a temporary COVID-19 increase of substitute teacher pay to $100 a day expire, meaning it will return to $65 for non-certified and $70 for certified substitutes. The matter could be revisited later.

• Increased the pay for The Video Guy to livestream meetings and work sessions from $150 to $200 per meeting or session in a one-year contract approval after he was the only bidder.

• Approved a change putting in more requirements to grant students a social promotion, including mandatory attendance of parents at two meetings, and housekeeping changes in grading. Both were amendments to the Student Rights and Responsibilities handbook.

• Heard Rafalowski report the Tuesday morning death of Sandy Davis, who worked at Sullivan North High School from its opening in 1980 to its permanent closure in May of this year. She also had additional time in the system. “She gave everything to that school,” said Rafalowski, a teacher and coach at North when it opened. “I don’t think I heard her have a cross word for anybody.”

• Heard Rafalowski report that county system teachers will return Aug. 2 to classrooms and students Aug. 9. The new West Ridge High School, a merger of Sullivan South, North and Central high schools, will stagger its first week with juniors and seniors Monday and Wednesday, freshmen and sophomores Tuesday and Thursday and all students Friday.

Jury selection in Baby Doe opioid lawsuit to begin Thursday

BRISTOL, Tenn. — As of Wednesday afternoon, jury selection for the damages trial in the Sullivan Baby Doe opioid lawsuit remained scheduled to begin this morning, according to court records on file with the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Numerous called government meetings across Northeast Tennessee since Monday have fueled speculation that plaintiffs in the case are considering a potential settlement from defendant Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc. before the trial begins next week, if not prior to jury selection.

The Sullivan County Commission’s Executive Committee met in called session on Wednesday afternoon and immediately went behind closed doors with District Attorney General Barry Staubus.

State law allows local governing bodies to meet in private to discuss lawsuits.

After meeting with Staubus, the committee voted unanimously to “accept the trial strategy” as discussed during their closed-door meeting.

After the vote, Staubus said he had no comment, and committee members would only repeat the phrase “accept the trial strategy” when asked by reporters to explain what the wording meant.

The full Washington County Commission met in “emergency” session to have a similar closed-door meeting later Wednesday, followed by a unanimous vote to approve a resolution regarding litigation.

Greene County’s full commission met Monday night and took a similar vote.

The Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen did likewise during a regular meeting on Tuesday, approving a resolution added to the agenda earlier this week. Bluff City’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen also met in called session on Tuesday, with Staubus, to discuss the opioid lawsuit.

The Sullivan Baby Doe lawsuit was originally filed on June 13, 2017, by the district attorneys general of Tennessee’s First, Second and Third judicial districts in Sullivan County Circuit Court in Kingsport.

The complaint originally listed prescription opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma, L.P. and its related companies, along with Mallinckrodt PLC, Endo Pharmaceuticals, a pill mill doctor, and other convicted opioid dealers as defendants.

As part of the national scrutiny brought to bear on opioid producers and distributors, due in part to Sullivan Baby Doe’s arguments, Purdue and Mallinckrodt have declared bankruptcy, with claims proceeding against them in related courts. Endo remains the only active corporate defendant.

In April, Sullivan County Chancellor E.G. Moody granted a default judgment in plaintiffs’ favor; imposed sanctions for defendant Endo Health Solutions Inc. and Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc.; and reserved issuing a final judgment pending the damages trial, which is scheduled to begin July 26.

Plaintiffs are seeking $2.4 billion in compensatory damages and punitive damages above and beyond that amount.

Unless a settlement agreement is reached, a jury will determine the amount of damages plaintiffs will receive.

Also on Wednesday, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery joined attorneys general of several other states in an online discussion of potential settlement of a lawsuit against drug manufacturer Johnson & Johnson and three distributors.

Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc. is not a defendant in that suit.

A proposed $26 billion settlement of that multistate lawsuit would be the second-largest in U.S. history, according to attorneys general participating in the online discussion, and Slatery said Tennessee’s share would be roughly $600 million.

Experts: Spend opioid settlement funds on fighting opioids

As a $26 billion settlement over the toll of opioids looms, some public health experts are citing the 1998 agreement with tobacco companies as a cautionary tale of runaway government spending and missed opportunities for saving more lives.

Mere fractions of the $200 billion- plus tobacco settlement have gone toward preventing smoking and helping people quit in many states. Instead, much of the money has helped to balance state budgets, lay fiber-optic cable and repair roads.

And while the settlement was a success in many ways — smoking rates have dropped significantly — cigarettes are still blamed for more than 480,000 American deaths a year.

“We saw a lot of those dollars being spent in ways that didn’t help the population that had been harmed by tobacco,” said Bradley D. Stein, director of the RAND Corporation’s Opioid Policy Center. “And I think it’s critical that the opioid settlement dollars are spent wisely.”

Lawyers for states and local governments and the companies laid out key details of the settlement on Wednesday and said there are provisions to make sure the money is used as intended.

The deal calls for the drugmaker Johnson & Johnson to pay up to $5 billion, in addition to billions more from the major national drug distribution companies. AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health are each to contribute $6.4 billion. McKesson is to pay $7.9 billion.

Nearly $2 billion of the funds would be reserved for private lawyers who were hired by governments to work on their suits against the industry. State attorney general offices could also keep some of the money.

States — except West Virginia, which has already settled with the companies but could receive more through the deal — will have 30 days to approve the agreements. After that, local governments will have four months to sign on. Each company will decide whether enough jurisdictions agree to the deal to move ahead with it. The more governments that sign on, the more the companies will pay.

“While the companies strongly dispute the allegations made in these lawsuits, they believe the proposed settlement agreement and settlement process it establishes ... are important steps toward achieving broad resolution of governmental opioid claims and delivering meaningful relief to communities across the United States,” the distribution companies said in a statement.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong said it would be the second-biggest cash settlement of its kind in U.S. history behind the tobacco deal in the 1990s.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein said the opioid agreement requires state and local governments to use the vast majority of the money on abatement — and that will be subject to a court order. The deal calls for at least 70% of the money to go to a list of abatement activities such as providing naloxone, a drug that reverses overdoses; helping house homeless people with addictions; or educating the public on the dangers of the drugs, among many other possibilities.

“We all are experiencing the consequences in communities across North Carolina, across the country,” Stein said on a video news conference on Wednesday.

Not every state is ready to agree. Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he would reject the deal as “insufficient” and move ahead with a trial on claims against the distributors scheduled to start in September.

Grant Woods, a former Arizona Attorney General who’s been involved in both the tobacco and opioid lawsuits, said the difference this time is that “everybody wants this money to go towards opioids and abatement around the country”

The deal would be part of the ongoing effort to address the nationwide opioid addiction and overdose crisis. Prescription drugs and illegal ones like heroin and illicitly produced fentanyl have been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S. since 2000. The number of cases reached a record high in 2020.

If approved, the settlement will likely be the largest of many in the opioid litigation playing out nationwide. It’s expected to bring more than $23 billion to abatement and mitigation efforts to help get treatment for people who are addicted along with other programs to address the crisis. The money would come in 18 annual payments, with the biggest amounts in the next several years.

This is likely to be the biggest group of settlements, but other companies, including OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, generic drugmaker Mallinckrodt and the consulting firm McKinsey have all reached or nearly reached national settlements over opioids, too. Some drugmakers, smaller distributors and pharmacy companies are still being sued by thousands of government entities.

A group of advocacy organizations, public health experts and others are pushing for governments to sign on to a set of principles for how settlement money should be used. They include establishing a dedicated fund for combating the epidemic with the settlement money and making sure that it doesn’t just replace other funding streams in the budget.

The group has pointed out that many state and local governments have already made cuts to substance use and behavioral health programs because of the economic downturn wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. And government officials may be tempted to fill holes in budgets with the money.

Joshua Sharfstein, a vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said it’s crucial that the money is spent to combat the opioid scourge because the overdose epidemic is raging.

Last year, there were a record 93,000 fatal overdoses from all drugs in the U.S. The majority of them involved fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid that has medical uses but is also produced illicitly.

“Everybody is both excited and a little worried,” Sharfstein said of the expected funds, “a little worried that they may be squandered.”

Paul Geller, a lawyer representing local governments, said the structure of the settlement ensures the money will be used as intended.

“It won’t be used to fill potholes or build libraries or balance budgets,” Geller said.

Those are the kind of things that a significant portion of the tobacco settlement money has been spent on, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, which tracks the money.

Campaign President Matthew L. Myers said the tobacco settlement is “one of the greatest missed public health opportunities of our lifetime.”

“We would have saved massively more lives,” he said if more money was spent on cessation and prevention.

The settlement was the result of states wanting to recoup healthcare costs associated with tobacco-related illnesses, while alleging the industry misled the public.

Joelle Lester, director of commercial tobacco control programs at the Public Health Law Center in Minnesota, said the tobacco settlement was “both a huge success and a cautionary tale.”

It led to rising cigarette prices, which caused smoking rates to drop. Marketing, particularly to kids, was curtailed. And adult smoking fell from 24.1% in 1998 to 13.7% in 2018, according to the American Lung Association.

But the money that was diverted could still have made a bigger difference, she said.

“The folks negotiating these settlements have to keep their focus on the destruction to health and communities caused,” she said of industry settlements in general. “Every element of the settlement should either try to remediate the harm caused or prevent it from continuing.”

Finley reported from Norfolk, Virginia, and Mulvihill from Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

Fun Fest schedule for Thursday, July 22

F3 Free Men’s Workout

Sponsored by F3 Kingsport

6:30-7:30 a.m.

Dobyns-Bennett track parking lot on Stadium Court, off Eastman Road

Birding Kingsport Bird Walk

Sponsored by Riverfront Seafood

8-9 a.m.

Kayak River Access — Greenbelt KBT, meet under the I-26 overpass (next to Riverfront Seafood parking)

The Taste

Sponsored by Bank of Tennessee

4-9 p.m.

Memorial Park, 1625 Fort Henry Drive

Sunset Concert Series: Crowder and opening acts Andrew Ripp, Tyla Boyd

Tickets required

Sponsored by Carter-Trent Funeral Homes, Goodwill Industries of Tenneva, Tele-Optics, Inc., 88.3 WCQR

J. Fred Johnson Stadium

Tickets $20


Fun Fest Art Show

Sponsored by Kingsport Art Guild, Kingsport Office of Cultural Arts, William King Museum of Art

July 11 through Aug. 16; Monday-Friday 8 a.m.- 8 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m.-12 p.m.; Sunday 1 p.m.- 4 p.m.

Kingsport Renaissance Center Main Gallery — second floor

Rediscover Kingsport Scavenger Hunt

Sponsored by Archives of the City of Kingsport, Friends of the Archives, Downtown Kingsport Association July 16-24 Various times and locations Pick up forms at Fun Fest Store or Kingsport Public Library

Fun Fest Wiffleball

Pre-registration required

Sponsored by Partner Industrial, Down to Earth, Hales Chapel Christian Church

1-8 p.m.

280 Hales Chapel Road

12 team double-elimination tournament began July 16

Fun Fest Medallion Hunt

Sponsored by Kubota of Kingsport

July 19-24

Various locations

Keep Kingsport Beautiful Trashbusters

Sponsored by Appalachian Power

July 17-19; July 21-24

Various locations

6-8 p.m.

Immediate past Sullivan County Director of Schools EvelynRafalowski (2015-2019)

Hawkins County Commissioner Dawson Fields lost his temper Wednesday, stating he's tired of being blamed for delays in the new E-radio system installation.