Utah studies opioid-related overdose deaths one at a time, hoping to prevent more

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Department of Health is hoping to understand more about why so many people are dying from opioid-related overdoses in Utah.

To do that, a team of professionals is studying overdose deaths one at a time — looking at toxicology reports, which pills were found near the individual who overdosed when they died; and whether they were incarcerated or experienced a dry period before their death.

The important thing is that these deaths aren't viewed as data points, but as people, said Joey Thurgood, opioid fatality review coordinator with the Utah Department of Health.

"Thorough review of opioid-related deaths informs prevention efforts statewide," she said, adding that knowing the circumstances surrounding specific opioid-related overdose deaths can help prevent future similar fatalities.

Thurgood is part of the Utah Opioid Overdose Fatality Review Committee, formed by the Utah Department of Health's Violence and Injury Prevention Program in 2018 to find ways to improve the current system and possibly keep more people from dying preventable deaths.

Since its inception, the committee has reviewed 58 opioid overdose deaths and has generated more than 50 recommendations for prevention.

The committee has released a series of reports and has identified what it calls "hot spots" where there is an increased incidence of overdose-related deaths in certain areas of the state. It found that a higher concentration of these deaths occur in Carbon and Emery counties, as well as in downtown Ogden.

The majority (94 percent) of overdose-related deaths in southeastern Utah between 2014 and 2016 resulted from prescription opioids; and 6 percent were due to heroin.

In Ogden, 58 percent of the overdose deaths studied were because of prescription opioids, 32 percent resulted from heroin and 10 percent involved both, according to one report.

The review committee also found that an increasing number of people who overdose are also taking gabapentin, a differently classed drug that is believed to be a "safe alternative to opioids," according to the committee. When taken together with pain pills, anxiety medication or muscle relaxants, the effects of gabapentin can be fatal.

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"The greatest threat of gabapentin occurs when used with an opioid, because both drugs have been identified and shown to suppress breathing, which can be fatal," another report states. "If gabapentin is taken with an opioid there is a 49 percent higher risk of dying."

Another common precursor to opioid-related overdose deaths, the committee found, was whether the decedent was recently released from an institution, correctional facility, or a mental health care facility, where they might have experienced a period of abstinence from opioids, when their body's tolerance to the drug is lowered.

The committee recommends increased education for anyone who works with people who have substance abuse disorders, as well as physicians who are qualified to dispense methadone and other medications that can help to wean people from opioid dependency. It also points increased understanding of Utah's Good Samaritan Law, which removes the penalty for someone associated with a potential overdose death if they call for help.

Other recommendations from the committee include better monitoring of prescription opioids, as well as more prescriptions for naloxone, which can reverse the effects of a potential overdose if taken in time.

The committee also thinks policymakers should seek for more funding to offer help to families, to provide for increased numbers of interventions and to expand crisis services throughout the state.

It will continue to study overdose deaths in Utah, looking specifically at how veterans are impacted next.

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Wendy Leonard is a deputy news director at KSL.com. Prior to this, she was a reporter for the Deseret News since 2004, covering a variety of topics, including health and medicine, police and courts, government and other issues relating to family.


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