In a report released by the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s office, overdose deaths were up for the third straight year in Ventura County, with accidental overdoses making up a majority of deaths.
The 2018 Overdose Report offers insights on an epidemic that is not unique to the county. Nationwide, the proliferation of opioids is being called an epidemic.
In 2018, 1,563 total deaths were reported to the Medical Examiner’s Office, and of those, jurisdiction was accepted for 806 which required further investigation. Autopsies were performed on 626 of the cases and of those, 170 were found to have been caused by an overdose due to medications, alcohol and/or illicit drugs.
Out of 170 overdose deaths, 156 were considered accidental, 13 were considered suicide and one was undetermined.
From 2016 to 2017, overdose deaths jumped from 116 to 165, while from 2017 to 2018, it only increased by five to 170. Accidental deaths followed the same pattern, jumping from 105 in 2016 to 142 in 2017, a smaller increase in 2018 to 156. Meanwhile, suicides, which increased from 11 to 23 between 2016 and 2017, dropped by 10 to 13 total in 2018.
Dr. Christopher Young, chief medical examiner, says that accidental deaths are the result of an individual taking a drug — be it illicit or prescription — and dying unintentionally. These types are deaths are more common than suicide in not only Ventura County but nationwide as well.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 130 people die daily in the United States after overdosing on opioids. These deaths can be attributed to any number of opioids including heroin, prescription pain relievers and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. The Institute lays blame for the crisis at the doorstep of the pharmaceutical industry, saying it “reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers,” which in turn led physicians to prescribe them in greater numbers.
In 1999, the number of reported deaths credited to an opioid of any kind nationwide was 8,098. In 2017, that number had grown to over 47,000.
Further statistics from the Institute show that up to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids will abuse them, with between 8 percent and 12 percent of users developing an opioid use disorder. The misuse of opioids has a direct link to a transition to heroin, with 80 percent of users having first misused opioids.
Young says that opioids, while at the center of national attention, are not the only drugs of concern.
“We see the whole gamut of types of deaths that range from people who are abusing prescription medications, people who are taking them not as recommended and combining them with alcohol. We see just pure illicit drug overdoses, which are accidents, and then we see a large overlap of that with people combing illicit drugs with alcohol and prescription drugs,” said Young.
Young says that between 2017 and 2018, the number of deaths related to methamphetamines increased from 50 to 78, for example.
“It really is a complex problem. It can have to do with the sales of drugs in the area, availability, there are so many factors,” said Young. “I don’t have a good explanation. I just see the effects of it. A lot of those methamphetamine deaths there are those that are pure meth, but a large number are a mix of heroin and other opioids, too, and it’s hard to pinpoint one thing because there’s so much overlap.”
The report also notes that the age group most impacted by drug deaths is older individuals between the ages of 51 and 60 with a total of 48 deaths, followed by the 41-50 age group with 34 deaths and the 61-70 year olds with 23 deaths.
“I was kind of shocked myself, but that does seem consistent with the cases that we see,” said Young. “I think a lot of people think of drug abuse as a younger person problem but it really isn’t.”
The city of Ventura, with 44 overdose deaths in 2018, ranked highest in the report, followed by Oxnard, 41, and Thousand Oaks, 21.
Loretta Denering, chief of alcohol and drug programs for the Ventura County Health Care Agency’s Behavioral Health Department, says that the county’s response to the opioid epidemic began before it was declared a national crisis.
In 2012, the county began tracking opioid-related deaths and in 2014, Ventura County Responds and the Rx Abuse & Heroin Workgroup was formed. In 2016, after meeting with the law enforcement agencies, officers began carrying Narcan, also known as Naloxone, in their patrol vehicles. The nasal spray reverses the effects of an opioid overdose which Denering calls an “instant life saver.”
“We have officers who do carry it regularly and all would probably say they have stories, cases where lives have been saved,” said Denering.
According to Ventura County Behavioral Health’s website Ventura County Responds, as of January 2019, officers have administered Narcan 11 times. Countywide, the agency says that 551 lives have been saved through the use of Overdose Rescue Kits.
Denering says that the higher number of older aged individuals dying from an overdose could be attributed to having better access to medications, but that there are a lot of factors involved. Regardless, Denering says that use of all drugs are on the rise and that expanding treatment in Ventura County is a priority, adding that on Dec. 1, following state and federal mandates, the agency expanded its treatment system to provide more in the way of medication assisted and residential treatments as well as withdrawal management and case management benefits.
“We just keep doing what we do, we focus on the lives that are saved and we focus on the people who are actively in treatment and the people who have successfully completed treatment and are in successful recovery,” said Denering. “That’s what keeps us going because we know that there is hope and treatment does work.”
If you need help, call 1-844-385-9200 to get support. For more information or assistance, and to learn about treatment options in Ventura County, visit www.venturacountyresponds.org.