After years of rising opioid mortality, opioid deaths in most New York counties fell between 2015 and 2016, according to new numbers from the New York State Department of Health.
Excluding New York City, which is counted separately and where opioid deaths rose during the same period, there were 1,238 opioid deaths in New York state last year, compared to 1,520 deaths the year before. Overdose deaths take time to confirm, and it’s possible the new report’s numbers could change, but the apparent improvement comes amid growing use of the overdose reversal drug naloxone ― lending credence to the public health theory that increased access to naloxone helps prevent opioid deaths.
“The increased use of naloxone in New York State reflects both the ongoing opioid epidemic as well as increased access to this life-saving medication,” Jill Montag, a state health department spokeswoman, told HuffPost in an email. “County health departments ― as well as treatment programs, community-based organizations and public safety agencies ― have taken critical roles in working with the state to expand this capacity.”
Montag noted that New York plans to continue expanding access to the medication, via a naloxone copay assistance program that offers up to $40 in copay assistance to people with health insurance. (Those without insurance can get naloxone for free through a registered overdose prevention program.)
“These findings are consistent with the increasingly definitive medical and public health evidence that expanded access to naloxone for first responders, community and family members, as well as those using opioids, saves lives,” Dr. Peter Friedmann, associate dean for research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and chief research officer at the nonprofit Baystate Health, told HuffPost.
Indeed, the new numbers track with previous research, including a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper released in February, which found that between 1999 and 2014, adopting naloxone access laws was associated with a 9 to 11 percent reduction in opioid deaths. (The paper has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a journal.)
New York City’s numbers complicate the picture, however. The state report does not include the city’s overdose death figures, but the New York City Health Department confirmed that unintentional overdose deaths in NYC rose from 937 in 2015 to 1,374 in 2016. More than 80 percent of those deaths involved an opioid.
“New York City has had high rates of opioid overdose deaths in the Bronx, and particularly the South Bronx,” an NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene spokesperson told HuffPost. “Nonetheless, similar to other parts of the city, state and country, the Bronx has seen steep increases in opioid-involved overdose deaths since 2010, with sharp increases from 2015 to 2016. If the South Bronx were a state, it would have the second highest overdose rate after West Virginia.”
This increase comes despite the city’s robust naloxone program. In March, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $38 million plan to fight opioid addiction and overdose, including a commitment to distributing 100,000 naloxone kits per year. According to the new state report, emergency medical services in New York City administered the overdose reversal drug 5,088 times in 2015 and 7,667 times last year.
On the national level, news about the opioid crisis has been bleak in recent years. In 2015, more than 50,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, with overdose deaths outpacing historical epidemics like HIV and firearm deaths during their deadliest years.