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Emergency Room Visits for Opioid Overdoses Went Up 30 Percent Last Year

It seems few corners of America have been spared the ravages of opioid misuse.
A hospital in London, England.

Emergency room visits for opioid overdoses increased 30 percent nationwide between 2016 and 2017, according to new numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the 45 states that the CDC analyzed, more than 142,000 Americans ended up in the emergency room over the course of 15 months because they'd stopped breathing or responding after taking prescription painkillers, fake pills, or heroin.

The numbers mirror the continuing rise in opioid overdose deaths, which went up 28 percent between 2015 and 2016. But the CDC's release also provides a rare glimpse into many potentially non-fatal overdoses. This is the first time the CDC has offered emergency-department data so quickly after collecting it, and the agency hopes it will help towns and states to respond quickly to sudden spates of overdoses, preventing them from getting worse. The data also highlights what proponents say is a growing need for emergency departments to connect overdose patients to resources such as take-home doses of naloxone, the opioid overdose-reversing drug, and addiction treatment. "This data sends a wake-up call about the need to improve what happens when patients leave the emergency department," Anne Schuchat, acting director of the CDC, said during a call for reporters.

Drilling deeper into the data reveals some interesting trends. It seems few corners of America have been spared the ravages of opioid misuse. Between July of 2016 and September of 2017, opioid-overdose emergency room visits increased throughout the United States, going up the most in the Midwest (70 percent). The number of emergency room visits increased for both females and males, and for every age range above 24 years.

The CDC gathered more detailed data from 16 states that have been particularly hard hit by opioid addiction and death. Government analysts found that overdose emergency room visits have gone up in 10 of those states, including Delaware, where they more than doubled, and Pennsylvania, where they increased by more than 80 percent. "That may be a reflection of recent changes in the local drug supply or the toxicity of the drugs that are available there," Schuchat said. Many towns and regions in America have seen fentanyl and related chemicals show up in their black-market drugs. Because these substances are stronger than heroin, and it's impossible for a drug buyer to know what exactly is in his purchase, they increase the risk that a user will overdose.

There are some (yet-unconfirmed) hints of good news. Overdose numbers seem to have declined slightly in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. CDC analysts think it's possible that, because these states have dealt with opioid addiction for a long time, and offer many harm reduction and addiction treatment programs, they've been able to bring down overdoses even in the face of a fentanyl-laced drug supply. But they don't have the data yet to know for sure. "Whether we're seeing real, true, persistent declines or these are really statistical fluctuations, we just don't know yet," Schuchat said. Kentucky saw a significant decrease in overdose emergency room visits, 15 percent. Again, the CDC is not sure why, Schuchat said.

As for what emergency room data can do for cities and states suffering from overdoses among their residents, CDC researchers offered an example in an essay, also published on Tuesday, in the Annals of Emergency Medicine. Last June, one hospital emergency department in Georgia saw six opioid overdoses and one death, all in one day. Two of the patients said they'd taken what they thought were Percocets that they bought off the street. The hospital alerted the Georgia Poison Center; the next day, state agencies held a press conference to warn the public of a dangerous batch of counterfeit pills circulating in the black market. Chemical analysis found the pills contained fentanyl. Ultimately, researchers attributed 27 overdoses and one death to that batch of pills, but that number could have been significantly worse had it not been for the public announcement, state and federal analysts wrote in a report. Quick data reporting and cooperation among agencies "contributed to curtailing this outbreak."