For the first time in years, 2017 saw a decline in drug-related deaths in Jefferson County
By JEN JACKSON
PUBLISHED: SATURDAY, JANUARY 6, 2018 AT 5:15 AM
While there seem to be no signs of drug use coming to an end, deaths from drug overdoses in Jefferson County were significantly fewer last year — after having been on the rise for a decade.
As of the end of last year, 18 people in Jefferson County had died from drug overdoses in 2017, with another possible fatality pending toxicological confirmation.
Of the 18 deaths, 17 occurred between January and October.
According to Stephen A. Jennings, chairman of Jefferson County’s Alliance for Better Communities and public health planner, the county had been on track to exceed 30 overdose deaths in 2017.
In 2005, Jefferson County saw three overdose deaths, but by 2011 the total had grown to 19. In 2016, 23 people died of confirmed drug overdoses.
“Every one of (those deaths) is tragic and dramatically affects so many people — children, spouses, grandchildren, friends, employees, businesses, support services, and the community as a whole,” said Anita Seefried-Brown, project director for the Alliance for Better Communities.
“Still, we are beyond grateful (the rate) significantly leveled off during the last four months of 2017 rather than reaching the most dire tracking estimate of 30 people.”
According to Pivot Executive Director William W. Bowerman, it’s too early to tell if the decrease indicates a long-term trend.
“I think that all of the new services, as well as increased community collaborations that have rallied to address this problem, have certainly helped ... If we see that downward trend sustained through the new year, we’ll feel more confident,” Mr. Bowerman explained in an email.
None of Jefferson County’s 2017 overdose deaths was caused solely by heroin, but by mixed substances and synthetic versions of opioids like fentanyl and its analogs, which alone killed 10 people.
Though thankful the last months of the year claimed fewer lives, Jefferson County District Attorney Kristyna S. Mills hasn’t seen the same decrease in drug use and dealing.
“While I am happy that overdose deaths are down, I believe that it’s due in large part to the widespread availability of (the overdose reversal drug) Narcan and not to a decrease in the drug flow in our county,” she said in an email.
According to Mrs. Mills, the county experienced a 2 percent increase in drug arrests in 2017 and a significant increase in drug seizures.
“I do think, however, that organizations such as the Alliance for Better Communities and the new Anchor Recovery Center are helping significantly with our drug addicted population.”
Investigator Jerry D. Golden, supervisor of the Metro-Jeff Drug Task Force, concurred that opioid-based drug cases and seizures were up again this last year.
“Our heroin cases are still the majority of our cases,” Mr. Golden said. “The local price (for heroin) is going down, and typically that means more of it on the market.”
Mr. Golden, who puts great emphasis on the importance of drug education and advocacy, also credits the use of Narcan and Naloxone in saving lives — especially when synthetic drugs are becoming more potent and more dangerous.
“More parents and addicts themselves have it readily available, there to avert tragedy.”
Mrs. Seefried-Brown said the alliance couldn’t pinpoint the exact reason for the decline in deaths; she believes there are several factors, including increased distribution of Narcan throughout the county, increased services and support for persons with addictions to access treatment and medication-assisted therapies and increased awareness and education about opiate addictions via various media sources.
The Anchor Recovery Center was opened by Pivot in April to host a wide range of support services for everyone affected by addiction, in any of its many forms, all entirely free. In September alone, 51 new people walked through the door looking to receive services.
“While the declining death rate in 2017 was welcome, unfortunately, one year does not prove a trend,” Mrs. Seefried-Brown said. “Therefore, we will continue to partner with all community sectors, working toward and hoping for a further decline in drug overdose deaths in 2018.”
In the 18 months between Jan. 1, 2016 and July 2017, City Fire Battalion Chief James R. Holland’s department responded to 244 drug overdose alone. From September through December of last year, however, they had to administer naloxone only three times.
“I am not willing to say (the number of responses) are declining but they appear to have leveled off,” Chief Holland said in an email. “I can’t attribute a cause to this. It may be that use is down but I really don’t think that is the case.”
While his data is only a part of the picture, he likewise thought the distribution of naloxone and Narcan kits are a possible contributing, and lifesaver, factor.
“As dealers get smarter, we work even harder and try to get smarter still,” said Mr. Golden. “There’s absolutely nothing good coming from this drug.”