COVID-19 deaths may be trending down, but opioid related deaths are not

Non-fatal overdose numbers in TN surpassing last year’s
Published: Jul. 9, 2021 at 6:05 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - As we near the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, another health crisis is being brought back into the spotlight in the Mid-South, opioid-related deaths.

“We’re still feeling the impact of that increased caseload,” said Dr. Ben Figura.

Figura is the Director of the West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center, where he and his team perform the autopsies and certify manner(s) of death for 14 Tennessee counties, including Shelby County.

He says opioid overdoses were becoming more and more common during 2020, but those numbers have continued to rise.

“We’ve had to add additional staff just to keep up,” Figura said.

The same is for the rest of the Mid-South.

One of the latest reports from the CDC shows that during the pandemic all three Mid-South states saw a forty-percent increase in opioid deaths: Arkansas (505 deaths / 39.1 percent increase), Mississippi (500 deaths / 44.1 percent increase), and Tennessee (3,023 deaths / 42.9 percent increase).

Even non-fatal overdose numbers are on an upward trend.

The Tennessee Department of Health’s (TDOH) most recent overdose YTD report shows 2021 numbers are outpacing 2020 numbers.

“Getting access to available treatment is kind of the gap because many people don’t know how to find treatment and if they do they may not know if it’s affordable or available,” said Dr. Ronald Cowan.

Cowan is the Chair of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s (UTHSC) Department of Psychiatry.

He is the facilitator of the school’s outreach program Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes), where he reaches out to family practice physicians and provides information on opioids so that those suffering from addiction can have what they need to overcome addiction readily available.

“That, I think, is the most important thing is how to get life-saving treatment to people,” Cowan said.”

One drug, in particular, could serve to help the Mid-South with opioid addiction.

Recently, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) updated prescription guidance for the drug buprenorphine.

The policy, which used to require licensing and training from the Federal government in order to prescribe buprenorphine, now allows most physicians to prescribe it to up to thirty patients a month.

“(Treatment) should be as routine as any other care you get from a family practice provider, unless you have a case where you need a great deal of specialty expertise,” Cowan said. “If (people suffering from addiction) are on a routine, stable maintenance care, then I think that would be very helpful in preventing overdose and relapse.”

While the new policy is still new, its effectiveness is not able to be accurately measure just yet.

However, Cowan is optimistic as to how it can benefit the Mid-South.

All of these things: additional access to resources/treatment, science, and policy is what he says will help the Mid-South take control of its opioid addiction problem and bring the numbers down.

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