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Opioid overdoses on the rise since pandemic began

By CAROLINE BECK and MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Emergency room visits for drug overdoses have risen in Alabama during the months since the coronavirus pandemic first impacted the state, health officials say.

During a virtual meeting of the Alabama Opioid Overdose and Addiction Council on Tuesday, Dr. Darlene Traffanstedt, the medical director of Adult Health & Family Planning at the Jefferson County Health Department, updated the council on opioid deaths and ER visits seen since March.

Statewide ER visits for drug overdoses have increased in recent months peaking in July at 1,169 visits. Traffanstedt said she expects to see an even larger amount in August.

“And the greatest majority of them are opioid overdoses,” Traffanstedt said.

In Jefferson County, opioid-related overdose deaths from January to June of this year were up 32.5% from last year.

“So much work has been done here, so to see it go up so much in a short period of time is shocking to us,” Traffanstedt told the council.

“Beginning in March, we begin to see an increase in overdose events,” Traffanstedt said. Those events are both fatal and non-fatal overdoses and include hospital emergency department visits, EMS calls and deaths.

Traffanstedt said there are several theories behind the increases in drug abuse, including social isolation which is anecdotally known to have caused an increased relapse rate for people who were in solid recovery, she said.

Other factors include decreased access to treatment during the pandemic and a temporary shortage of Naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug.

Some have also speculated that the pandemic and border closures disrupted the heroin supply coming into the U.S., creating a “fundamental change in the pharmacology of the drug,” she said. So, what people are buying on the street may be cut with more fentanyl or other drugs.

State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris told council members combating opioid abuse is important now more than ever with so much of the health industry focused on COVID-19.

“These problems don’t go away just because we are not paying attention to them and there is certainly a lot that still needs to be done,” Harris said.

The council was established last year by the Alabama Legislature, which charged it with studying the state’s opioid abuse problem and recommending policy changes.  An increasing amount of statewide data on opioid abuse, opioid overdoses and opioid prescriptions has been collected since then, and one goal of the council is making those data points open to the public. An interactive dashboard will soon be published showing the number of opioid deaths per county, ambulance overdose runs, ER visits and persons in treatment for substance abuse disorder.

Nancy Bishop, the state pharmacy director for ADPH said she hopes to have the dashboard released by the end of 2020 or early next year.

Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson chairs the council’s Rescue Committee and said their efforts to distribute Naloxone, or Narcan, kits were significantly derailed by the pandemic.

Wilson said they are exploring the idea of using public health nurses from different counties in the state to become licensed dispensers of Narcan, especially in counties that have high rates of abuse.

State law significantly hinders who can physically hand out the Narcan kits, so Wilson is hoping to have more online training to license more public health nurses and pharmacists in how to dispense the kits.

Wilson said the Alabama Department of Mental Health has approximately 1,300 kits available for distribution now.

One way Traffanstedt’s team has tried to slow the number of overdoses in Birmingham is identifying areas with high amounts of abuse and setting up pop-up clinics instead of waiting for people to come to the health department.

“We’re just really having to think from the perspective of the person who needs our help and try to redesign our whole system in a very short period of time,” Traffanstedt told council members.

A 24/7 helpline for those experiencing addiction is available at 844-307-1760 and the council recommends visiting for more resources to get help.

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