Late last year, hopes ran high that our community and our country had finally turned the corner toward taming the worst drug epidemic in American history.
After all, accidental drug-overdose fatalities from heroin, fentanyl and other opioids had registered some rather dramatic declines from the record levels of death and destruction they wrought in 2017.
But today, midway through 2019, those hopes have been dashed. New data from local, state and national health authorities show significant increases this year in overdose hospitalizations and deaths, some of which surpass the peak levels of 2017.
That same alarming data must now serve as a wake-up call for a renewed push from public health and public safety authorities to rein in the epidemic.
How alarming is the new data? According to overdose-death statistics released last week by the Trumbull County Coroner’s Office, 2019 far more closely resembles 2017 when 135 fatalities were reported than 2018, when the number of those deaths dropped nearly in half to 76. As of May 21 this year, the county had logged 46 OD deaths, more than double the number at that point last year.
Reports from many other counties in Ohio and regions of the nation parallel that same disheartening upward swing .
Throughout the Buckeye State, the toll in lost lives and lost productivity has been staggering. More than 500,000 years of life expectancy were lost in Ohio from 2010 to 2016 because of the opioid epidemic, according to a study conducted by the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health.
And, sadly, those numbers only continue to grow with new momentum.
INTENSIFY COORDINATED OFFENSIVE
In order to make a larger dent in the human, economic and social tolls of the drug scourge, the multi-pronged strategy that has been key to lessening some of the pain must continue and intensify. Even though such coordinated offensives have had their fair share of successes, the ever-changing nature of the drug plague means no guards can be let down.
This year fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is hundreds of times more potent than heroin, has become the No. 1 drug of destruction. Not only is it far more potent, it also is far more faster-acting, thereby lessening the window of opportunity for successful interventions. In addition, fentanyl increasingly is being laced with cocaine and methamphetamines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported.
The CDC recently offered up this three-pronged prescription to battle the plague: increase access to the opioid antidote naloxone, increase access to medication-assisted treatment and expand public-sector partnerships.
Fortunately, on the local level, that Rx has taken firm hold.
The availability of long-term treatment facilities has expanded throughout the Valley. In Trumbull County, commissioners joined officials in many other counties and states who have sued pharmaceutical companies that many regard as complicit in the drug-death trap.
Mahoning County has launched countywide Quick Response Teams comprised of deputy sheriffs, emergency medical services representatives and professional drug counselors. The team contacts OD victims within 24 to 72 hours of their brush with death and leads them to counseling and treatment.
Statewide, the Ohio budget for fighting opioid addiction for 2018 was nearly double that of 2017, at about $225 million. Gov. Mike DeWine has proposed a $74 million increase in the 2020-21 budget to agencies that work with foster children whose parents are addicts. He also recommends spending $7.5 million over the next two years to create 30 new drug courts across the state.
On the federal level, more than 70 acts have been approved aimed squarely at taming the opiate monster. They range from cutting off the supply of fentanyl in this country to assisting victims and families of victims with treatment and other support mechanisms.
But despite a declaration of a national emergency over the drug epidemic, many contend the administration of President Donald J. Trump is not doing enough to lessen the toll.
John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under former President George W. Bush, said the current administration is not dedicating nearly enough federal resources to fight the epidemic.
What’s worse, ongoing efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and gut $1.5 trillion from Medicaid over 10 years would deal a heavy blow to the estimated 500,000 Americans addicted to illicit drugs who rely on those programs for treatment – and survival.
Clearly many challenges remain. Clearly, too, more of the same vigorous and cooperative teamwork that has expanded the horizons for drug-addicted individuals will be required in coming months and years.