Opioid epidemic actually worse than the numbers indicate

Published: Sep. 29, 2022 at 10:17 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - Many of you probably know someone who has lost a loved one to opioid abuse. The epidemic is only growing worse.

In Jefferson County alone, 236 people died from opioid overdose in 2019. There were 401 in 2021, but those battling the issue say the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Everyone I spoke with stressed this is a huge problem and the number of overdoses and deaths are even higher than what is being reported. Some experts say that’s because of a toxicology back log, lackluster data reporting, and testing costs.

“We really need a standardized way of reporting deaths due to overdose,” Jefferson County Department of Health Medical Director Dr. Darlene Traffanstedt.

In rural areas, the lack of resources and employees often lead to coroners being unable to link deaths to opioids. And the ones they can confirm are often delayed weeks or months, but that’s not the case everywhere.

“Here at JCDH, we have a real time data dashboard, where within 24 hours of an overdose occurring in our community, we are aware of it and these resources simply do not exist in other parts of the state,” said Dr. Traffanstedt.

Jefferson County Department of Health Medical Director Traffanstedt credits those collecting the data in Jefferson County and believes that is part of the reason why numbers are so much higher in the county.

“That we here in Jefferson County have wonderful coroner’s and medical examiners office that is staffed by forensic pathologists at UAB and toxicologists at UAB. They do a really fantastic job of death investigations and record keeping around deaths and also a fantastic job of reporting that out publicly.”

The Alabama Department of Public Health is working on a public dashboard, but at this time, it remains a “work in progress” with data on opioid deaths only available as recently as 2018.

“This is not a battle that Alabama fights alone, but certainly we have a lot of room for improvement in terms of how we collect and report overdose data in our state.”

Shelby County Coroner Lina Evans and Baldwin County Coroner Dr. Brian Pierce both believe that more accurate reporting will be necessary if the state wants to get more federal funding to battle the epidemic.

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