Opioid Epidemic Deaths and Emergency Room Visits Are Down in Orange County

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Opioid overdose deaths in Orange County continue to outstrip the average in the state and elsewhere in Southern California, but fatalities and emergency room visits are trending down as officials address the epidemic, according to a report released Tuesday by the Orange Count Health Care Agency.

Last year, officials saw the first dip in opioid-related emergency room visits with a 6% decline over 2017. Hospitalization of overdose patients decreased about 5% last year over the prior year, according to the report.

Opioid-related deaths trended up each year since 2011, with it peaking in 2016, but the number of deaths dropped from 288 in 2016 to 251 last year.

From 2011 to last year, 64.2%, or 1,292 opioid-related overdose fatalities in the county, were male users. Nearly four out of five deaths were white victims, followed by Latinos at 15.9%, Asians at 2.9%, other ethnicities at 1.5% and blacks at 1.1%. The top age group of fatalities were 45 to 54 at 22.5%, followed by 25- to 34-year-olds at 21.1% and 55- to 64-year-olds at 20.9%.

The most common culprits were heroin, hydrocodone, morphine, oxycodone and fentanyl, according to the report. Of the overdose deaths from 2011 through last year, heroin was a killer 29% of the time, hydrocodone at 27.8%, morphine at 24.1%, oxycodone at 20.5% and fentanyl at 14.3%.

"However, hydrocodone, morphine and codeine involvement in deaths demonstrated a decreasing trend from 2011 to 2018, while oxycodone involvement in deaths remained relatively stable through this time period," according to the report. "Importantly, the percentage of heroin and fentanyl involved in overdose deaths, increased significantly."

Physicians are dispensing less prescriptions for the painkillers, according to the report. The nearly 1.5 million painkiller prescriptions dispensed last year was down from the average of 1.7 million in the three prior years.

"The decline in opioid overdose deaths parallels the drop in prescriptions, however, there has been an increase in heroin and fentanyl-related deaths," according to the report.

County officials are launching a number of campaigns to educate and treat residents to further reduce the epidemic.

"If all Orange County stakeholders unite to adopt an evidence-based public health approach, we can effectively address the opioid crisis impacting this county," according to the report. "This will not only prevent the onset and intervene in the progression of the disease; it will increase the numbers of those in recovery and will prevent the spread of related infectious diseases and accidental death. The quality of life for all Orange County residents will only be improved through these efforts."

Orange County Board Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett said Orange County will launch two opioid overdose and misuse prevention campaigns.

"Both campaigns will include countywide education as well as targeted messaging for high-risk groups and regions of the county, through a multimedia approach using social, digital and print media," Bartlett said.

Supervisor Andrew Do noted the county recently established a mental health facility to tackle the drug-abuse problem.

"The opioid crisis touches the lives of every family in Orange County," he said. "That's why we worked so hard to establish Be Well OC, the first mental health and wellness campus in Orange County, which will help residents get clean and stay sober."

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