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President Donald Trump highlighted the opioid crisis during his 2016 campaign. Now, for the first time in three decades, deaths from overdose of opioid painkillers in the United States have dropped by nearly 5 percent, according to government estimates for 2018.
Some regions of the country boast even more impressive statistics. In Pennsylvania, overdose deaths fell by an estimated 18 percent. In Ohio’s Hamilton County, which includes the city of Cincinnati, opioid overdose deaths plummeted 34 percent, emergency room visits due to opioid overdose fell 36 percent, and patients entering treatment for opioid addiction rose 50 percent, according to the Providers Clinical Support System (PCSS), a coalition of 20 national healthcare organizations working to address the epidemic.
“Lives are being saved,” Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex M. Azar II said in a tweet, “and we’re beginning to win the fight against this crisis.” He attributes the promising statistics to “America’s united efforts to curb opioid use disorder.”
In 2017 HHS launched a five-point strategy to combat the crisis. The strategy includes improving addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery services; improving pain management; supporting more timely health data and reporting; and increasing research on pain and addiction. President Trump’s 2019 budget includes $74 million in new investments to increase availability of overdose-reversing drugs.
States and communities across the country are employing these strategies. Some cities have allowed emergency rooms, syringe exchange sites, and walk-in clinics easier access to methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone, FDA-approved medications that help to suppress cravings and ease symptoms of withdrawal. Last month New Jersey began allowing paramedics to administer buprenorphine as soon as they have revived an overdose victim.
Hamilton County, Ohio, has made naloxone readily available through syringe exchange programs, schools, universities, libraries, and religious organizations. The county has also streamlined the intake process so patients who previously had to wait four to eight weeks before they could gain admission to a treatment facility can now forgo the waiting list and secure treatment on demand.
But, experts warn, America has a long way to go before it can declare victory over the opioid epidemic. The crisis developed over two decades, and we cannot solve it overnight, Azar noted.
Despite the significant decline in mortality rates, an estimated 68,000 people died of opioid overdose in 2018. HHS will not release the final death toll until later this year, and the number could rise if examiners deem overdoses responsible for some of the deaths still under investigation.
The statistics also do not include non-overdose deaths related to opioid use, such as deaths from infectious diseases, like hepatitis C and endocarditis related to intravenous drug use.
Further complicating the picture, statistics vary widely by state and region. Some Western states are seeing a rise in overdose deaths, as are several mid-Atlantic states, including New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland.
Some worry that the fight against the opioid epidemic may lose its momentum when the $3.3 billion the federal government issued in grants to states over the past two years runs out.
But, although it may be too soon to say we are turning the corner, we are making progress, White House drug czar Jim Carroll told Politico: “We are making a difference. We just need to continue to push hard.”