Despite earlier estimates, opioid fatalities in 2018 now expected to match 2017 deaths

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Early reports from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on opioid-related fatalities in 2018 predicted a hopeful outcome for the year: perhaps the number of fatal overdoses would, after years of staggering increases, finally drop.

But the most recent report for the third quarter of last year dashes those hopes.

According to data released in January, the state estimates that there were 1,229 opioid overdose fatalities in 2018, the exact same number that occurred in 2017. The true number won’t be available until the data is finalized in the spring.

In the first quarter of last year, the state estimated 62 fewer deaths for the year.

“Prior to the last publication, we actually thought we were going to see a decrease, but we had such a significant jump in the third quarter of 2018 that we had to recalculate,” said Rosie Hobron, statewide forensic epidemiologist with the Department of Health.

There were about 50 or 60 more drug-related deaths in the third quarter than the department expected, she added, particularly due to fentanyl, a dangerously powerful synthetic opioid that was developed as a pain management drug but has been used illicitly, often mixed with heroin.

Fentanyl, in both its prescription and illicit forms, caused or contributed to 50 percent of the fatal overdoses in 2017, according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s quarterly report. The state estimates that it caused even more fatalities in 2018, with 825 deaths compared to 770 in 2017.

Though Virginia likely won’t see the decrease it was expecting in the final report, there could be a silver lining: at least 2018 likely will not continue the upward trajectory of fatal opioid overdoses, Hobron pointed out.

“When we looked at the numbers in 2016 compared to 2015, it was astronomical and terrifying,” she said.

There was a 38.9 percent increase in fatal overdoses from all drugs between 2016 and 2015, the largest jump the state has seen. Between 2017 and 2016, there was a 7.4 percent increase.

Other drug-related deaths, though, are on the rise as well, particularly methamphetamine- and cocaine-related fatalities. The state estimates that they caused 31 and 75 additional deaths in 2018 compared to the year before, respectively.

“One of the issues is we need to look at this not as a drug crisis but an addiction crisis,” Hobron said.

From The Bulletin, the Mercury’s blog, where we post quick hits on the news of the day, odds and ends and commentary.