Opioid Overdoses Are Up Another 30 Percent, CDC Says

March 8, 2018
by Anjali Tsui Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

(AP Photo)

Drug overdoses are on the rise as the nation’s opioid epidemic continues to worsen.

Hospital emergency rooms saw a 30 percent uptick in visits related to opioid overdoses over the course of a year, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Opioid overdoses accounted for more than 142,000 emergency room visits between July 2016 and September 2017, according to the report.

States in the Midwest saw the most dramatic rise in opioid overdoses, around 70 percent. The largest increase — 109 percent — occurred in Wisconsin. Kentucky was the only state that saw a significant decrease — 15 percent.

“Opioid overdoses are increasing across all regions, most states, for both men and women and most age groups,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s acting director said during a press conference this week. “This is a very difficult and fast-moving epidemic and there are no easy solutions.”

Overdose deaths have reached an all-time high in the U.S., according to Schuchat. On average, 115 Americans died every day in 2016 due to an opioid overdose, she added.

The ongoing crisis has been driven by prescription opioids and the illicit use of drugs like heroin and fentanyl. While rural areas have traditionally been hit hard by the epidemic, the CDC report indicates that the biggest jumps in opioid-related overdose rates came in large metropolitan areas.

Schuchat called the data “a wake-up call” for communities to consider how they can better support patients after they leave the emergency room.

President Donald Trump has pledged to tackle the crisis, promising to “reduce the number of deaths and minimize the devastation” in communities across the country. His proposed budget would give the Department of Health and Human Services $3 billion in new funding in 2018 and $10 billion in 2019 to combat the epidemic.

In October, the president directed the Department of Health and Human Services to declare the crisis a “public health emergency,” a temporary designation that allows some grant money to be used to combat opioid abuse. The decision stopped short of a broader recommendation offered  by a White House commission on drug addiction to declare the crisis a “national emergency.” Doing so would have allowed the administration to more easily access new sources of federal funding for the epidemic through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Critics say the administration’s efforts have fallen short of what is needed to tackle a nationwide crisis. In January, a group of Democratic senators, led by Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), wrote to the U.S. Government Accountability Office seeking an investigation into the president’s actions.

“Given the severity of the crisis, we have grown increasingly concerned by reports that the President has done little to make use of his public health emergency declaration, leaving state and local communities without the resources they need to fight the opioid epidemic,” they wrote.

At the White House last week, President Trump reaffirmed his commitment to a law-and-order approach to tackling the epidemic.

“I’ve spoken with Jeff about bringing a lawsuit against some of these opioid companies,” the president said, referencing Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ move to back lawsuits against opioid manufacturers who have used deceptive means to profit from people who are addicted to drugs.

He also called for issuing the death penalty to drug dealers as one way to curb the crisis. He called this “the ultimate penalty.”

“If you shoot one person, they give you life, they give you the death penalty,” he said. “These people can kill 2,000, 3,000 people and nothing happens to them. And we need strength with respect to the pushers and to the drug dealers. And if we don’t do that, you’re never going to solve the problem.”

Critics of this approach say that more funding for treatment options and a coordinated community response — rather than beefing up arrests — is what is needed to tackle the opioid epidemic. In Seattle, for example, a program known as “Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion,” or LEAD, allows police to refer drug users to case workers rather than arrest them for low-level offenses. The effort was the focus of the 2016 FRONTLINE documentary Chasing Heroin.

Many inside the administration have similarly called for a stronger focus on public health solutions. During this week’s press conference, Surgeon General Jerome Adams spoke about ways to combat the crisis: by putting naloxone — which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose — in the hands of first responders; educating the public about the epidemic and preventing addition from occurring in the first place.

“The science is clear: addiction is a chronic disease and not a moral failing,” he said.


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