Rio Arriba County appears to be making progress in the fight against its opioid epidemic.
Just look at statistics the Department of Health shared with the Rio Arriba Community Health Council earlier this month. Epidemiologists were in Rio Arriba County to release a report on overdose data, part of an Emergency Department Overdose Surveillance Project. Each month, health workers from various teams — the local hospital, the county and the state — meet to review overdose statistics. That’s just the beginning, though.
Case managers then reach out to overdose survivors, offering services to help them through their addiction. State health workers talk to prescribers and advise them of safe prescribing policies. There’s a network in place to record the incident but more important, to follow up once the patient is back home.
The approach appears to be working in Rio Arriba County — one of just two counties where the surveillance is taking place — because the county has developed a team able to respond. To date, the statistics seem to show that this concentrated effort at fighting opioid addiction is making a difference.
At the Presbyterian Española Hospital in 2019, overdose cases in the emergency department dropped from 166 in 2018 to 104 in 2019, a decrease of 38 percent. Overdose deaths had been in the double digits; that number fell to only one overdose death in the emergency department in 2019.
Health officials attributed these improvements to the formation of the Opiate Use Reduction Network, health care agencies that work collaboratively to manage individual cases through the Rio Arriba County Health and Human Services Department. The network, in its final year of a five-year grant, was funded through a Behavioral Health Investment Zone project.
The network’s impact was felt early on, with a 30 percent decrease countywide of overdose deaths in 2015. County Health and Human Services Director Lauren Reichelt attributed the drop to the first phase of the project — blanketing Rio Arriba County with naloxone, the drug that reverses overdoses.
The overdose death rate continued to fall slightly but steadily after the initial 30 percent drop. ER visits because of overdose increased — indicating that people were taking naloxone, not dying, and heading to the hospital for treatment. Those are lives saved.
With Rio Arriba County long a national leader in overdose deaths because of heroin use, fewer people dying is great news. The death and addiction rates still are unacceptable, but through tracking overdose patients in emergency rooms, a clearer picture of what will stem the epidemic is emerging.
First, intervene to stop overdose deaths. Track how prescriptions are being handed out. Attend to the patients not just in the ER but in the community, with social services and treatment. Talk about what is working and communicate among county health agencies, the state Department of Health, private medical providers and others.
Then, do it all over again — not just in Rio Arriba, but in Santa Fe, Bernalillo, San Miguel or any other county in New Mexico where drug addiction blights lives and dims futures.