The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered up what will hopefully prove to be some good news last week: Preliminary numbers suggest U.S. overdose deaths last year likely fell for the first time in nearly three decades.
The CDC posted data showing nearly 68,000 drug overdose deaths were reported last year. The number may go up as more investigations are completed, but the federal agency expects the tally will end up below 69,000.
While that’s good news, the reality is still sobering. Overdose deaths have been climbing each year since 1990, and topped 70,000 in 2017, the latest year for which complete information is available. But good news aside, the overdose death rate is still about seven times higher than it was a generation ago.
Alex Azar, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, celebrated the count with a tweet. “Lives are being saved, and we’re beginning to win the fight against this crisis,” he tweeted.
Rebecca Haffajee, a University of Michigan researcher, told The Associated Press, “We’re still in a pretty sad situation that we need to address.
While the CDC report was heartening, researchers do not believe this is the start of a dramatic decline. Data from the first months of this year likely will show that the decrease is not gaining steam, said Farida Ahmad of the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.
The improvement was driven by a drop in deaths from heroin and prescription painkillers. Those reductions were somewhat offset by continuing growth in deaths involving a different opioid, fentanyl, as well as other drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines.
Unfortunately, the improvement is not uniform. Some states seem to be making dramatic progress, while deaths continue to rise in others. The preliminary CDC data suggested deaths last year were down by as many as 1,000 or more in Ohio and Pennsylvania — each seeing declines of about 20%. At the same time, overdose deaths in Missouri increased by about 17%, which had more than 200 additional deaths.
Any good news must be tempered by the fact that it can take months for authorities to complete toxicology tests and other elements of a death investigation involving drugs. The CDC is expected to report more complete data later this year.
The current overdose epidemic has killed more people than any other in U.S. history, and that epidemic had been on a soaring trajectory. From 2014 to 2017, overdose deaths jumped by 5,000 or more each year.
Experts trace the epidemic’s origins to 1995 and the marketing of the prescription painkiller OxyContin. It was meant to be safer and more effective than other prescription opioids, but some patients got hooked and found they could crush the tablets and snort or inject them to get high.
Many who became hooked on painkillers turned to cheaper street drugs such as heroin and fentanyl. By 2015, heroin was causing more deaths than prescription painkillers. In 2016, fentanyl and its clones became the biggest drug killer. By 2018, the CDC reported, they were involved in about 46% of the reported overdose deaths.
The latest CDC numbers are encouraging, but some, including Valerie Hardcastle, a Northern Kentucky University administrator who oversees research and other work on local health issues, took a more cautious course.
“It’s fantastic that we have fewer deaths, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “But I’m not sure it’s an indication that the opioid problem per se is diminishing. It’s just that we have greater availability of the drugs (such as Narcan) that will keep us alive.”
Still, when it comes to overdose deaths, any improvement is reason to celebrate.