The number of overdose deaths in Calhoun County continues to rise, state and local officials say, despite growing public policy attention to the opioid problem.
Overdose deaths in the county doubled from 15 in 2016 to 30 in 2017, Dr. Mary McIntyre, chief medical officer for the Alabama Department of Public Health, said Wednesday.
“There have been a lot of things that play into that, with heroin and fentanyl,” McIntyre said. “The drugs are even being added to marijuana.”
The Star began inquiring about the overdose death rate last month, after the Anniston Police Department, in a social media post, cited an alarming increase in the number of deaths in the county.
“I’d say there was a pretty sharp increase,” said Calhoun County Coroner Pat Brown. As both coroner and an emergency medical technician, Brown has seen both the overdose victims who survive and the ones who don’t. He says they’re typically found alone in bed, with a needle in hand, or in an arm.
When an overdose victim doesn’t make it, it’s Brown who has to notify the family.
“In most cases, they’re not surprised,” he said. Victims typically have addiction problems that are apparent well before an overdose, he said. Some die after returning to drugs following a stay in rehab.
“Their tolerance is down, but they go back to the dosage they were doing before rehab,” he said.
The state as a whole saw an increase in overdose deaths over the same period. According to McIntyre, 749 people in Alabama died of overdoses in 2016, followed by 835.
The numbers come with caveats. There’s no vetted data yet for 2018, McIntyre said. County-level numbers are small and subject to sharp changes. The numbers include all overdose deaths, and aren’t broken down to distinguish other deaths from deaths though opioids – a broad category of drugs that includes over-the-counter painkillers, heroin and powerful synthetic drugs such as fentanyl.
Still, public health officials have long known that a surge in opioid addiction is the main driver behind a multi-year increase in overdose deaths nationwide. By most accounts, the problem began more than a decade ago with over-prescription of painkillers. Crackdowns on prescriptions, public health officials believed, led many already-addicted people to switch to heroin and other street drugs.
2017 was supposed to be the year that turned the problem around.President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national health emergency.Gov. Kay Ivey appointed a state-level task force to craft policy solutions.Cities and counties began filing suit against opioid manufacturers, hoping to recoup their losses and possibly spend and settlement on fixes for the problem.
One year ago this week, hundreds of local residents showed up at a rally in Oxford to call attention to the overdose problem. Daniel Hughes, the organizer of the event, said he’s been in talks with officials about the problem since the event. But Seven Springs Ministries, the drug rehab program he runs, continues to see more people in need of help.
“I don’t think things are getting any better,” Hughes said.
Hughes believes the area needs more rehab facilities, like the one he runs, to meet demand. And he said there needs to be more accountability for the rehab facilities that do exist.
Hughes believes state and national task forces on the problem lacked input from local people dealing with the issue.
“As far as I know, nobody from the recovery community at our level has been brought into the conversation,” he said.