Sep 1, 2022 - News

D.C. battles rising opioid overdose deaths

Data: CDC. Note: Reported deaths are undercounted due to incomplete data and lag times in processing. 2022 deaths per capita were calculated using 2021 population estimates. Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Overdose deaths remain high in D.C., even as District leaders try to make overdose-reversing medication and fentanyl tests more available.

Why it matters: Overdose deaths in the city have been on the rise since 2015, largely due to opioids.

What’s happening: Between March 2021 and March 2022, the estimated percentage of all drug overdose deaths in D.C. rose by 5.97%, according to the CDC.

  • Most of those estimated deaths were specifically due to opioid overdoses, per CDC data.

According to D.C.’s chief medical examiner, fentanyl was present in 96% of overdose deaths.

  • There were 1,958 non-fatal overdoses in D.C. from Jan. 22 through June 22, and 163 fatal overdoses from Jan. 22 through May 22.

Of note: The CDC’s overdose numbers are considered an undercount due to incomplete data.

State of play: Long Live D.C., the city's plan to address the opioid crisis, launched a public education campaign yesterday to encourage people who use opioids to take advantage of medication-assisted treatment and free counseling services. Residents can call the access line at 1-888-793-4357.

Additionally, naloxone, an opioid overdose-reversing medication, is free for D.C. residents without a prescription or ID at participating pharmacies in all eight wards.

  • According to the city, 56,810 naloxone kits were distributed last year. D.C. also distributes fentanyl testing strips.

What they’re saying: Despite the city's naloxone outreach, stigma remains an issue, says Monica Ruiz, an associate professor of prevention and community health at George Washington University.

  • “People don't want to take [naloxone]. They don't think it applies to them or … people don't want to be seen taking Narcan because of the stigma around drug use,” she tells Axios.
  • Drugs laced with fentanyl also complicate the issue, she adds, because people may not think to test for the deadly substance.

Some harm reduction organizations have called to decriminalize drug possession in order to tackle the crisis, particularly since Black residents make up the majority of opioid-related arrests in D.C, per DCist.

  • Ruiz agrees and adds that drug use can be regulated so that, much like in a medical marijuana dispensary, people know the quality of the drugs they’re receiving.

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