Fixing opioid crisis a matter of life and death for too many

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A warning: You may find the numbers that follow deeply disturbing. In fact, you should.

According to Emergency Services, 79 people lost their lives to opioid-related overdoses in Guilford County in 2018.

And that was an improvement.

Ninety-nine people lost their lives to opioid-related overdoses in Guilford County in 2017, reports the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, up from 71 the previous year (a 39.4 percent increase).

From 2008 to 2017, 417 died from opioid-related overdoses here, the most among the 14 counties in the Triad and northwest North Carolina. And nine of those counties saw increases in opioid deaths in 2017.

Comparing the most recent statewide figures available, Guilford County ranked third in fatal overdoses in 2017, behind Mecklenburg County (179 deaths) and Wake County (122).

The numbers are stunning enough, but then consider the names and faces and the broken families and grieving loved ones behind each of them.

“Visits to our emergency department by patients for opioid overdose and heroin overdose have increased over the past few years and have become a much more common problem,” Dr. Michael Fitch, professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston-Salem, told BH Media’s Richard Craver.

Opioid addiction and overdose is just one pixel in a complex picture that involves higher mortality rates, suicide and chronic pain management. It is fed by unemployment, underemployment, insufficient health insurance and other factors.

Some become addicted to painkillers following operations or injuries. And some of those, unable to pay for legitimate medication, turn to cheaper street drugs such as heroin to manage their pain.

The synthetic opioid fentanyl is especially troubling. Fentanyl-related deaths spiked from seven in 2014 to 599 in 2017.

The majority of overdose cases in the state involve white men between the ages of 25 and 34, DHHS says. But opioid addiction is a scourge that can bedevil anyone, regardless of gender, race or economic status. The common denominator is that they find themselves trapped in the torturous cycle that leads to deceit, crime and the loss of jobs, health and family ties.

Fortunately, more resources are being devoted to fighting the problem. The N.C. legislature has passed the STOP (Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention) Act, which limits the number of days that pain medication can be prescribed and requires closer monitoring of patients before continuing prescriptions.

On the front lines, naloxone, the opioid overdose-reversal drug, is administered by first responders. It also is now available at pharmacies statewide without a prescription.

This may account for the lower death rate in Guilford County in 2018. According to Emergency Services, naloxone was administered to 912 local patients 1,210 times last year. And the percentage of overdoses that result in death is ticking steadily down.

There’s also more public awareness of the problem.

Still, more readily accessible treatment options need to be provided. And that would be likelier if Republicans in the legislature would finally agree to expand Medicaid coverage to more than 500,000 North Carolinians.

For far too many, this is a matter of life or death.