America’s opioid epidemic is now killing more than 100 people every day, fueling a public-health crisis that’s straining state and local resources – even forcing at least one Pennsylvania coroner to increase his freezer capacity to make room for all of the bodies.
And according to one recently published study, the epidemic may be killing more Americans than previously believed. The study, published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, suggests that certain states may have underestimated the rate of opioid- and heroin-related deaths, skewing national death totals by more than 20%. In 2014, the most recent year covered by the study, the rate of opioid-related deaths was, in reality, 24% higher than the official count.
Meanwhile, data from the CDC released Tuesday show that drug overdose deaths peaked in the third quarter of last year, with 19.7 for every 100,000 people, compared with 16.7 in the same period the year before.
Trump signed an executive order in March creating a national opioid commission to recommend strategies for combating the crisis. The commission, which is being led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has already urged Trump to declare a national emergency to deal with the opioid crisis. A final list of recommendations is expected by Oct. 1.
"We will fight this deadly epidemic and the United States will win," Trump said during a press briefing on Tuesday called to address the opioid epidemic. "We will win. We have no alternative."
Discrepancies arise when death certificates don’t specify the class of drug, or the specific drug, responsible for a given death. In certain states, the corrected opioid-related death rates were significantly higher than what had previously been reported. In Pennsylvania, which had the highest discrepancy, the real rate was more than double the official rate, with deaths per 100,000 rising to 17.8 from 8.5. Indiana, Alabama, Louisiana and Kentucky were also guilty of “substantially” underreporting death rates.
According to government data, Pennsylvania had the 32nd highest reported opioid mortality rate and the 20th highest reported heroin mortality rate in the country. But the study found that nearly half of opioid and heroin-related deaths weren’t counted. When the data were corrected, Pennsylvania’s ranking rose to the fourth-highest opioid mortality rate, and seventh-highest heroin mortality rate.
The corrected data also yielded more “coherent” geographic patterns by eliminated discrepancies caused by quirks in how fatality data are collected in each state.
“Specifically, the corrected death rates demonstrate that opioid involved mortality was concentrated in the Mountain States, Rust Belt, and Industrial North—extending to New England—and much of the South, whereas heroin deaths were particularly high in the Northeast and Rust Belt, but less so in the South or Mountain States. The results were less apparent when using reported rates, because high mortality in states such as Pennsylvania and Indiana were concealed by a frequent lack of specificity about drug involvement on death certificates.”
The study, which analyzed data on drug-related deaths collected between 2008 and 2014, found that heroin-related deaths increased more rapidly in most states, except for Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. Nationwide, the increase in heroin-involved mortality was underestimated by around 18%, while the change in opioid-related fatalities was negligible.
Drug-overdose deaths in 2015 killed 52,000 Americans, more than gun homicides or car accidents. Preliminary data suggest that number grew to nearly 60,000 in 2016. In one Ohio county, deaths from drug overdoses – the bulk of which were caused by powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl – surpassed deaths from homicides, suicides and car crashes combined.
And 2017 is expected to be even worse.
Read the full study below: