Drugs: Accuracy needed on overdosing

The depths of Chautauqua County’s drug problem may be worse than thought.

In late April, Dr. Victoria Hall, a Centers for Disease Control field officer, presented research from her team’s review of death records in the Minnesota Department of Health’s Unexplained Death surveillance system over a nine-year period. According to a CNN report, Hall told those attending a CDC conference her team found many deaths that hadn’t been captured in the state’s overdose total. Hall told those attending the conference that opioid users are at an increased risk of pneumonia, so her team searched for pneumonia as well as other infectious disease deaths to see if opioids were involved. They reviewed more than 1,000 and found 59 with evidence of opioid use and 22 with having toxic levels of opioids.

“While my research cannot speak to what percent we are underestimating, we know we are missing cases,” Hall told CNN. “It does seem like it is almost an iceberg of an epidemic.”

One can’t help but wonder if the same under-counting of drug overdose cases is happening in Chautauqua County.

Between January and April, the county health department has recorded eight opioid overdose deaths, four of which involved heroin. More than 20 overdoses were recorded in 2016. The New York state Department of Health recorded 15 opioid overdoses in the county, seven of which involved heroin and six involved opioid painkillers, in 2015. There were 14 opioid overdoses, eight involving heroin and seven involving painkillers, in 2014. Those statistics seem far too low, particularly in the face of the fairly constant number of stories being told about people dying from drug overdoses.

Christine Schuyler, county public health commissioner, and Warren Riles, the county’s chief coroner, disagree about why overdose reporting is so inexact — but all should be able to agree that it would seem our statistics aren’t accurate. The state needs to standardize reporting across counties so that statewide reports actually mean something. At the same time, the county simply must come up with a system to better ferret out deaths caused by opioid overdoses. Until it does, lawmakers and public health officials will never know whether or not it is actually taking positive steps to reduce drug overdoses.