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Haywood commissioners hear opioid update

Haywood commissioners hear opioid update

It appears that some progress is being made in the fight against drug addiction in Haywood County, but a recent presentation to Haywood County commissioners proves there’s still a long way to go.

“2019 has already been a difficult year,” said Haywood Public Health Director Patrick Johnson.

Johnson appeared with Haywood Health and Human Services Agency Public Health Education Supervisor Lauren Wood, as well as Post Overdose Outreach Specialist Jesse Lee Dunlap of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. 

Their presentation centered largely on what are called “deaths of despair,” which include suicides, suicides involving drugs and substance abuse deaths.

In Haywood County in 2016, there were nine suicides, but the next year, 2017, that total more than doubled to 20, with five more deaths still under investigation. Numbers were nearly the same in 2018, with 17 suicides and five cases pending. 

With a month still remaining in 2019, there have officially been 14 suicides, although there remain 17 cases still under investigation.

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Substance abuse-related deaths, though, have risen steadily over that same period, with 22 in 2016, 28 in 2017, 35 in 2018 and 34 this year. Those 17 pending cases will likely add to that total. 

Of the confirmed substance abuse deaths, 58 were due to alcohol, and 66 due to other drugs. Some of the totals don’t exactly add up, because some of the deaths could involve alcohol, drugs and suicide or any combination thereof.

Overdose data as of Oct. 31 show that from 2009 though 2015, opioid, meth and heroin overdoses remained fairly consistent, and fairly flat with less than 50 people a year succumbing to overdose from those particular substances. In 2016, however, meth saw decreases while heroin and opioids began an upswing. 

Over the last two years, both heroin and opioid overdoses have diminished somewhat, but meth overdoses have begun climbing again. 

Data over that same timeline show far more acute alcohol intoxication than opioid, heroin and meth overdoses — including a huge jump from less than 100 in 2015 to more than 250 in 2016. They peaked near 350 in 2017, but have been on the decline since. 

That’s led to a surprising conclusion — the average age of those deaths, according to Johnson, is 51 years of age.

With November and December 2019 numbers still to come, Johnson said that there have been 230 alcohol toxicity incidents this year, compared to 47 opioid overdoses, 25 heroin overdoses and 16 meth overdoses. 

The work of the Substance Use Prevention Alliance, however, hasn’t all been for naught. SUPA is a member-based coalition consisting of officials from public health and law enforcement as well as professionals from the medical, behavioral, preventative and harm reduction fields. 

Next steps for SUPA include a focus on youth prevention, reducing barriers to treatment and recovery, and overdose prevention. 

The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition has quickly become a force for good in the fight against deaths of despair. A Haywood Healthcare Foundation grant will soon begin to fund hepatitis C and post-overdose outreach, but the NCHRC’s work already includes providing syringe access and drug testing materials, safe syringe disposal, post-overdose follow-up and naloxone distribution.

Dunlap said that since the introduction of naloxone, a drug that if administered in time can actually reduce some opioid overdoses, more than 200 deaths have already been prevented. 

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