Overdose deaths are down in Summit County since a public health emergency was declared one year ago.
Overdoses killed nearly one person a day in Summit County in 2016, according to Summit County Opiate Task Force data. The rate began to drop after the 2017 emergency declaration, and for this year, it’s projected to be less than two deaths a week.
“I can tell you with 100-percent degree of certainty that the drug overdose deaths are dropping," says Summit health commissioner Donna Skoda.
But it's not because people aren't abusing opioids. Skoda says a large factor contributing to the overdose decline is because of the widespread distribution of Naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, which can help reverse the effects of an opioid-related overdose.
"I’m hopeful that there are more life saving techniques out there, and folks aren’t afraid to seek care when they are overdosing," Skoda says.
People tend to seek help because they won’t necessarily face prosecution and can get care instead. But that comes with another issue.
"The other thing is, if you look at some of the data sources, basically we’re prosecuting dealers," Skoda says. "And they’re not mixing their stuff like they used to because they don’t want to go to jail.”
The commissioner says the numbers for saving lives are encouraging, but the rest of the story is more complicated.
So what’s being done to bring opioid use under control? Skoda says good analysis of the problem and getting good information to care providers and the community about best practices with opioids are the keys.
“Dispensing them for headaches probably isn’t the first line. Or giving them for a backache probably isn’t the first line that you need to do," Skoda says. "You need to find out what’s causing some of that, so that has been a big issue for all of us over these last 18 months, is this education and awareness.”
She says building awareness of the ways addiction can attack teens and young adults is helping, too.
“I think parents particularly are getting the message about young brains. Youngsters don’t necessarily turn 18 and their brains become totally mature,” Skoda says. “So I think parents are getting the message to protect that brain from opioids, alcohol, and nicotine. Try to help that brain wire the way it should wire.”
The commissioner also cites data showing that for adults already caught up in addiction, medication-assisted treatment—fighting one drug with another drug—can be effective.
“We’re also investing heavily with the state’s help around the ER programs that allow for the administration of medication assisted treatment through emergency rooms," Skoda says. "So we’re hopeful this year we can expand that to meet the needs of individuals who do seek treatment in an ER.”
Donna Skoda also says a commonly cause of addiction can be prevented by going “drug-free” in a non-traditional approach to managing chronic pain. Using things like chiropractic and physical and behavioral therapy patients never encounter opioids.
“Other methods of pain control, as they catch on, I think are going to be very, very effective in helping individuals manage chronic pain, which is a reality," Skoda says. "It isn’t like people are making up that they have pain. They have real pain.”
Non-traditional and controversial overdose prevention methods are emerging, too, such as having medical personnel on hand in designated locations where addicts can “use” and be helped if they overdose.
“Safe use zones have been effective around the country," Skoda says. "I don’t know if we’ll ever see that here. But it has helped prevent the ultimate death. And then I think that what is probably going to be more stressful, and what’s going to continue to be a challenge, is the stigma attached to a brain disease that we have historically have pegged as a weakness and a choice.”
Skoda says the problem is getting people to understand that it's not a choice for those dealing with addiction.
"I don’t know one soul that woke up today to say, ‘I’m going to be a really lousy parent today and go out and find heroin.’ It doesn’t happen that way," Skoda says. "And I think overcoming that stigma is still really tough."
Skoda says the problem that lies ahead is changing the public's mind on the subject, but if that doesn't happen, the issues will continue.
"We still see it as a will, (that) you can will your way out of addiction, and that’s not true,” she says.