‘We can actually treat this’: Statistics show heroin overdoses, deaths down
MADISON, Wis. — When the heroin epidemic has at times felt insurmountable, statistics suggesting progress is being made is uplifting for those dealing with overdoses and deaths firsthand.
“We’re talking about typically young healthy people with their lives ahead of them,” Dr. Michael Halberg at SSM Health said. A drug overdose death is often the most tragic.”
At times, it seems like there’s no end in sight.
“Seeing it rise felt like a rising tide where it’s not going to stop,” Halberg said.
In his 11 years working in the emergency department, Halberg has seen countless overdose patients in hospital rooms.
“Last year was really discouraging,” he said. “It seemed like things were going the wrong direction.”
Madison police, however, said the latest statistics suggest the tide may be turning.
According to police, in June of 2018, the city had 11 heroin-related deaths. This June, there have been zero. Heroin fatalities are also down 35% this year, at 13 compared to 20 in the same time period in 2018.
Statistics show known heroin overdoses have gone down, as well, to 102 so far in 2018 from 144 from the same period in 2018, a 29% decrease.
“I’d like to believe it’s slowly, ever so slowly, the trajectory is moving in a different direction,” Chief Mike Koval said.
Koval points to a reduced stigma surrounding drug addiction.
“I think we’re looking through a lens of how can we provide help and care and medical responses in terms of treatment modalities as opposed to looking at it as a punitive model,” he said.
That includes putting money toward resources such as the Madison Addiction Recovery Initiative, which offers treatment as an alternative to jail. In its two years, police said 44 people have completed the program.
Koval also points to something he keeps in his pocket.
“More often than not, I’ve forgotten my gun over my Narcan,” he said.
Officers keep Narcan, the overdose-reversing drug delivery system, on them, as well.
“It’s almost an expectation you should have it,” Koval said. “If you don’t, why not?”
“We’re seeing police and paramedics are getting well-versed in how to handle these critical patients at the scene,” Halberg said.
In the emergency room, Halberg said they’re seeing fewer heroin overdoses so far this summer compared to last — a trend he hopes will continue.
“It’s encouraging so far,” he said. “Now we’re seeing through public health efforts and local resource efforts that you can make a difference. We can actually treat this.”
Saving patients from an overdose is the first step, but Halberg said what happens after that is critical.
At SSM and area hospitals, patients have a chance to touch base with a recovery coach and get connected with long-term resources through a partnership with Safe Communities.
Tanya Kraege, a recovery coach and project manager with Safe Communities, said there’s still a long way to go when addressing addiction’s stigma.
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