Are We Doing Enough Yet to Halt the Opioid Overdose Epidemic?

President Trump and Gov. Chris Christie and the Commission to address opioid abuse

This is a question being asked in every state, in many households and by many lawmakers and healthcare professionals. It’s a vitally important question to ask. Just talk to any parent who has lost a child to a drug overdose. Or ask any parent who dreads getting a phone call about their addicted child in the middle of the night.

Analyzing a widespread problem like this could lead us to draft the following questions:

  • What have we already implemented to stop people dying from overdoses?
  • Will our programs and actions be adequate to halt the devastation?
  • What will it actually take to eliminate this problem?
  • What can we do to help those who are already addicted and can’t stop reaching for more drugs?
  • How do we prevent people from starting to use addictive substances?

Factually, these are questions of vast importance because responding to this public health crisis adequately can result in tens of thousands of lives being saved.

Making Changes on a Broad Scale

Because cultures, organizational policies and bodies of law change slowly, it can take a while to enact needed changes and then see improvements begin to show up.

Here are some of the changes that have been made or that are in the process of being enacted.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued recommendations to doctors that they change their prescribing methods. Doctors were advised to start prescribing the lowest possible dosage of opioids and to only increase those dosages when it’s really needed and even then, go slow with those increases.
  • The American College of Emergency Physicians sought to reduce the number of people who begin their opioid addictions in the ER by recommending that ER doctors use non-opioid pain relief methods whenever possible and when opioids are prescribed, use the lowest effective dose for only a limited time.
Map of naloxone use in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania’s new overdose monitoring website.
  • States around the country have implemented reporting systems for overdose treatment and deaths, enabling the public, health officials and law enforcement to stay better informed about the extent of the problem in their areas. These systems are usually composed of information dashboards that provide a breakdown of drug-related events in each county. In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf just released his state’s dashboard on the 20th of March, 2018. Here’s an image showing a county-by-county breakdown on how often naloxone was used to reverse opioid overdoses.
  • The CDC is working with hospital emergency departments to improve the ability of ER staff to actually help those treated for overdoses. If opioid overdose patients simply walk out of the ER after they are revived, they are at risk to overdose again. Some people even overdose again the same day. ER staff is being taught more effective methods of referring overdose victims to rehabilitation programs. Some states have even enacted laws enabling a person who overdoses to be forced to enter a rehabilitation program. There are currently 37 states with these laws.
Boxes of drugs accepted by the DEA during a drug take-back day
Boxes of drugs collected during a Drug Take-Back Day run by the DEA. Photo courtesy of the DEA.
  • The Drug Enforcement Administration sponsors national Drug Take-Back Days, collecting hundreds of tons of unneeded drugs each year.
  • The Attorney General announced the formation of the Prescription Interdiction & Litigation Task Force to seek justice and compensation from pharmaceutical businesses that contributed to this epidemic with their negligence.
  • Other agencies getting on board include the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Medicare, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Food and Drug Administration.

What have the results been so far? Our numbers are still going up.

The CDC Announces New Statistics Through September 2017

Using the improved reporting function of the states, the CDC can now monitor the damage much more quickly than in previous years. Instead of needing to wait until an entire year has ended and all the numbers have been compiled and confirmed, the CDC has just reported on ER visits for opioid overdoses for the period beginning in July 2016 and ending in September 2017.

CDC stats on ER visits for opioid overdoses

This new report tells us that ER visits for opioid overdoses were 30% higher in September 2017 than they were in July 2016. In Midwest states, the increase was 70%. Among 16 states, the increase in large cities was 54%.

Causes of these overdoses included the use of pain medications, heroin, and illicitly manufactured fentanyl.

Since these numbers relate to people who made it to emergency rooms, it’s likely that most of them survived. But when our ERs are being flooded with a steeply increasing number of opioid-damaged individuals, it’s obvious that we are nowhere near a solution.

Why Aren’t We Turning this Ship Around Yet?

It took quite a few years to get to where we are today. For the sake of argument, let’s take the launch of OxyContin and its fraudulent marketing by Purdue Pharma as the beginning of this epidemic. That was 1996. We’re trying to reverse a situation that was more than twenty years in the making. As much as we and millions of other people would like to make this whole situation go away overnight, it will take a while. Many people will be harmed while needed changes are implemented.

Families—especially families in which a loved one is either using or addicted to drugs—need to be very aware of this fact. If they see drug-related problems, they need to take action at the first moment possible. Law enforcement, legislators, and medical personnel may not be able to help in any real way, aside from administering the opioid antidote naloxone or jailing a person who has been arrested.

It’s vital to know the signs of drug use so you can recognize the problem when it occurs. It’s also vital to refuse to be naive in these days of widespread drug abuse. Parents who insist on believing that “my kid would never do that” could be blindsided by the discovery of drug or alcohol use. Or worse, addiction or overdose.

Here are some articles to help you spot different kinds of drug use.

If you’re a parent, be vigilant. If you see drug use and your loved one won’t quit despite the harm he or she is suffering, start looking for a rehab program immediately. Gather your family and any other resources you can muster up and insist that the individual goes to rehab as soon as it is clear they will not fix the situation on their own. Every day you wait is another day the person could overdose and lose everything.


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.