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EDITORIAL: Saving lives in the opiate crisis

Jan 14, 2019

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Those are heartening words from Jerry Craig, the director of the Summit County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board. He told Amanda Garrett of the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com last week, “I think we’re on the waning end of the opiate crisis.” The numbers tell the story, starting with the decline in overdose deaths, from 340 dead in 2016 and 269 in 2017 to likely just above 100 last year, the official count not yet available.

The county Opiate Task Force reported last month that drug overdose visits to hospital emergency rooms fell from 2,431 in 2016 and 2,312 in 2017 to 1,289 through mid-December of last year. That 2018 figure is telling in view of the Bold Goal of United Way of Summit County — to reduce overdose emergency visits to 1,000 by 2025.

The darkest time of the epidemic here arrived in 2016. Overdose visits approached 400 per month in July, August and September. For that year, the monthly death count reached 28.3, or nearly one per day.

What explains the progress? Among the most significant factors has been the contribution of Craig and his many partners across the community. They have mobilized resources in a comprehensive way. That is apparent in the quick response teams, connecting with addicts who survive overdoses, making available the services and support to help in recovery.

DAWN kits educate family members and others about overdoses and addiction, including how to administer naloxone, a drug that reverses the effect of an overdose. In late 2016, a woman typically waited 13 days and a man eight days for access to a detox program. For the past year, the wait has been eliminated, according to the task force data. Access to residential treatment also has improved, from a wait of 58 days in the middle of 2017 to four days in the third quarter of last year.

There are other examples of strides forward, such as strips to test for fentanyl, the synthetic painkiller many times more potent than heroin. Perhaps the most impressive is the program at Summa Barberton Hospital, backed by the United Way and designed for the emergency department to serve as the “front door” to treatment and recovery. Addicts seeking help receive a coordinated range of care, including medication-assisted treatment and recovery coaches.

This is the kind of response required. Thus, it is encouraging to see the United Way advocating for the same at Summa Akron City and Cleveland Clinic Akron General.

The depth of the opiate, or addiction, crisis stemmed partly from the lack of a ready response. One had to be formed, and the county had help, especially through the Medicaid expansion. Now that improved programs and facilities are here, the community is in position to mobilize more effectively the next time, even prevent something along the dimension of an epidemic.

That isn’t to say this crisis is over. As Jerry Craig noted, the death toll in 2018 still outpaces what long had been typical, currently at roughly eight to nine overdose deaths per month instead of four or five deaths. So there is much work still to do. More, hard experience teaches how these crises quickly can change shape. What Summit County has shown is the capacity to respond well. The many partners involved have reinforced that there is a path to recovery. They have helped to rescue many lives.

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