Vote on opioid litigation postponed

Overdose deaths dropped in Calhoun County in 2018, according to preliminary numbers from the Alabama Department of Public Health.

But from where Coroner Pat Brown stands, it doesn’t feel like the opioid problem is on the wane.

“Maybe it’s leveled off,” Brown said. “But overdoses are such a common thing now, it’s hard to tell.”

Seventeen people died of drug overdoses in Calhoun County in 2018, according to numbers the Alabama Department of Public Health released to The Anniston Star recently. That’s a significant drop from 2017’s death toll of 30 overdose victims.

Twenty-seven people died of overdoses in St. Clair County last year, a number comparable to the death toll in 2017 and 2016. Talladega County saw 16 overdose deaths, twice the number the county had two years ago.

The Star requested the county-by-county numbers last month, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a preliminary count of overdose deaths nationwide.

Those numbers showed overdose deaths across the country dropping about 5 percent nationwide. Alabama saw a steeper drop in the CDC figures, with the number of overdose deaths dropping about 8 percent statewide last year.

That could be a sign that America is finally beginning to see some progress in the fight against opioid addiction. Local officials are cautious about the numbers, though, and with good reason. Overdose deaths sometimes take months to confirm through medical testing, and both state and federal officials have cautioned that the 2018 count could rise even now.

“I worked a probable overdose case just yesterday,” Brown said Monday. “It’ll be six months before we know for sure.”

State and local officials have been scrambling for years to find solutions for the rise in opioid abuse. President Donald Trump declared opioids a national health emergency in 2017, but most of the work has been done at the state level. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey convened a state task force that, among other things, recommended making the anti-overdose medication Narcan more widely available.

Narcan may be helping in St. Clair County, said Coroner Dennis Russell. Even though the 2018 number showed little change for St. Clair, Russell said he’s seen a sharp decline in overdose calls this year.

“I have no idea why, when this first became a problem, you didn’t have a lot of people with access to Narcan,” he said. He said he suspected the presence of Narcan in ambulances was helping. Attempts to reach RPS Ambulance Service, which serves St. Clair County, were unsuccessful.

Seyram Selase, director of the Oxford-based nonprofit Agency for Substance Abuse Prevention, said it’s hard to tell, so far, whether any decline in deaths is due to local efforts targeted to opioid abuse.

“I do think that people are becoming more aware of opioid abuse, and they’re also becoming more proactive,” Selase said.

Selase’s organization collects unused prescription drugs through National Drug Take Back Day. Last year, the group added collection sites for the take-back event and added some year-round drop-off locations for unused drugs.

Prescription drug abuse is still a big part of the problem, most experts say, though a number of studies have shown that deaths from heroin and illegal opioids have risen in recent years as states have cracked down on opioid prescriptions. Alabama coroners have only recently begun recording the type of drug used in an overdose, Brown said.

“We still have a big problem with heroin,” Brown said. “They’re cutting it with all kinds of stuff.”

Many of Calhoun County’s overdose victims, Brown said, were only recently out of rehab when they took their final dose. When addicts get clean, Brown said, they often lose their tolerance for drugs. When an addict makes the decision to use again, he’s likely to go back to the dosage he used to take — with deadly results.

Dena Boling believes the court system could help with that problem. Drug courts tend to sentence people to charity-run rehabs that often don’t include certified counselors, she said. Opioid addicts often need more, she said.

“They think they can send someone to drug court and have them do outpatient treatment,” said Boling, who works as a peer support specialist with the Recovery Organization of Support Specialists, a Birmingham-based group that helps people who have or have had substance abuse issues get clean and stay sober. 

“That’s not going to help someone with an IV drug problem,” said Boling.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.