Opioid Overdoses Are Up All Across the U.S.
The numbers are anything but good. Opioid overdoses are up all across the U.S. This after a steady two-year decline. Much of the rise is due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left people isolated and without their usual lifelines. Healing Properties tapped into Postindustrial‘s podcast interview with Pultizer Prize-winning investigative reporter Eric Eyre to find out more.
Opioid Overdoses: A Look at West Virginia
What’s the situation in West Virginia with COVID-19 and overdoses?
We’ve escaped the massive numbers of deaths that other states have had (from COVID-19). For the last two years, there’s been a decrease in opioid overdoses or drug overdoses, but just in the month of May, there was double the number of EMT response calls to overdoses as there were in the previous man. So it appears…and we don’t have the overdose death data yet for this year, but it appears that there’s been an increase in overdoses after two years of decline.
Those numbers have borne out in other parts of the country too. Nationally there are estimates that overdoses they’re up 11%. There’s a myriad of reasons for that. Probably the biggest one is this idea that the opposite of addiction is connection and we’re not getting a lot of connection.
What is the government doing to address this problem in the era of coronavirus?
They have eased some restrictions on getting medication-assisted treatment, or Suboxone (to help those with addiction). So they’re trying to do something to get more people into treatment. They’ve eliminated some of the drug screening requirements to get into treatment. So they are doing a few things, but frankly, probably not enough. And with all eyes focused on COVID-19, they have a war — coronavirus and opioid use disorder.
Since the outbreak of the virus has been replete with bad news, anything that you can highlight as good news coming out of West Virginia right now?
We’re always a strong people here. In this case, some positives that came out of the coverage of the opioid epidemic, we shined the spotlight. It’s explained in the book (“Death in Mudlick”), some of the largest companies in America that were dumping pain pills. So we were kind of a small place that made a big difference. West Virginia has a lot of potential.
West Virginia is beautiful but look at Pittsburgh. Postindustrial Pittsburgh is completely reshaped. We’re still stuck in the mindset that we need to mine coal. For so many people, it’s just part of their family history — you don’t go to college, you go to work in the coal mine. But I think there are opportunities, perhaps in clean energy. But I think it’s just a mindset change.
The Great Good Work of Eric Eyre
Eyre is the author of Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic. Eyre was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for “courageous reporting, performed in the face of powerful opposition, to expose the flood of opioids flowing into depressed West Virginia counties with the highest overdose death rates in the country.”
Yes, he is that good.
Eyre previously worked as a reporter for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. There he spent 22 years covering state government, health, business, and education. He’s now working with a new nonprofit, Mountain State Spotlight, which will focus on accountability journalism in West Virginia.
Opioid Overdoses: A Look Back at the U.S.
More than 750,000 people have died from a drug overdose since 1999, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s three-quarters of a million sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, moms and dads. In other words, 750,000 families torn asunder because of drugs.
Over 67,000 of those deaths occurred in 2018. And while that seems like an astronomical figure, it’s actually a 4% decrease from the year before. Nevertheless, it was enough to make drug overdoses the leading cause of injury-related deaths in the entire country.
Yes, opioids were the main driver of those overdose deaths. In fact, 46,802 of the 67,000 were opioid overdoses. That accounts for 69.5% of all drug overdose deaths. Two out of three of those fatalaties were due to synthetic opioids.
Back then West Virginia led the nation in drug overdose deaths with 51.5 per 100,000 residents. Delaware (43.8 per 100,000), Maryland (37.2), Pennsylvania (36.1), Ohio and New Hampshire (tied at 35.8) rounded out the ominous Top 5.
Again though, there was a decrease in drug overdose deaths. America seemed to have finally started to bounce back from the opioid epidemic. Then last year 71,000 Americans died of drug overdoses and the wind died with them. Not only were the numbers up, but they’d set a new record. And this before the COVID crisis even hit.
Opioid Overdoses: A Look Ahead at the U.S.
Last year’s rise in opioid overdoses understandably alarmed officials, especially those from the CDC. But it most certainly didn’t knock ’em off their game.
“We got it to stall out a bit,” said the CDC’s Robert Anderson. “Now we need to grab on again and not let this get away from us.” Anderson is Chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. In other words, he oversees death data for the CDC. So if he can keep it together, everybody can.
Including Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir. Admiral Giroir called the news “a very disturbing trend.” He also said it’s time to buckle-up.
“We understand that there is an extraordinary amount of work to do,” Giroir said, “especially now we’re also dealing with an epidemic that could markedly affect our nation’s mental health and risk of substance use.”
He’s not kidding. Especially considering the new data shows more than 30 states are reporting a rise in overdose deaths.
Perhaps that’s why Brendan Saloner, an addiction researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, sees things a little bleaker.
“I see a map of despair,” he said simply.
There is however a small bright spot: Massachusetts, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island all saw declines. Saloner insists those declines are a direct result of the states’ commitment to both overdose prevention and addiction treatment.
Columbia University’s Katherine Keyes wholeheartedly agrees. She also insists this is no time for surrender.
“We definitely should not give up,” she said. “Some states are showing remarkable successes.”