Opioid Crisis Update: Florida Declares Public Health Emergency; Pressure Increases on Medical Examiners and College Campuses Nationwide
May 12th, 2017 by CHHS RAs
By CHHS Research Assistant Bach Nguyen
On May 3rd, 2017, the governor of Florida declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency, echoing a similar move made by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan two months prior, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) declaration of a national opioid epidemic in 2011. As part of its state response, Florida Governor Rick Scott also approved the distribution of naxolone, a fast acting anti-overdose treatment, to first responders. Although the epidemic has been a concern of Gov. Scott for some time, the statement comes after an April 21st announcement that made federal funding available to Florida, giving the state access to more than $54 million in funding allocated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to combat the opioid crisis. Floridians are particularly affected by the epidemic, which has ravaged their communities for over four years and claimed 3,896 lives in 2015, nearly 12% of the 33,000 opioid overdose deaths nationwide. (For comparison, Maryland, which has roughly 30% the population size of Florida, reported 1,259 deaths in 2015).
Unfortunately, the Florida emergency declaration is just one of many recent opioid crisis-related headlines. This week also highlighted other ways the opioid crisis is affecting the health system: medical examiners are being overwhelmed by autopsies necessary due to overdose deaths. For example, a medical examiners office in Central Florida recently lost full accreditation status from the National Association of Medical Examiners, which recommends a forensic pathologist perform no more than 250 autopsies per year with a strict limit of 325 per year, due to the massive number of cases the office is handling. The Connecticut medical examiner’s (ME) office also recently lost full accreditation status, and the Maryland office also faces pressure because of the increased number of autopsies performed. To prevent this, Maryland has added three more examiners to avoid losing accreditation status.
The Connecticut ME office has seen a 70% increase in autopsies in the past four years, with overdose deaths rising by 157% in that same period. The ME office in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, saw an over 72% increase in overdose deaths from 2015 to 2016. Though the ME office was able to hire an additional pathologist to help deal with the increased number of autopsies, other ME offices lack funding to hire additional pathologists, and have even begun to skip some autopsies in order to comply with the time constraints and accreditation standards. Examiners in West Virginia are working weekends in order to keep up, while in Massachusetts, semi-retired examiners are being kept on-board to help with autopsies.
Finally, U.S. colleges and universities are working to address opioid addiction on campus, as they experience increased numbers of fatal student overdoses. As federal law does not require reporting of these deaths unless the deaths are deemed criminal, the numbers of on-campus overdose deaths are often underrepresented, preventing many colleges from fully recognizing the prevalence of opioids on campuses. Some schools, such as George Washington University, have student-based support groups and are working on developing university-based recovery programs; others are training and distributing naxolone to campus police and students. Washington State University has created education programs and implemented Good Samaritan policies to encourage students to understand the issues and seek support when necessary.
These developments come amidst proposals from the White House on May 5th to severely cut staff and resources dedicated to combating the opioid epidemic. The recent news above only serve to highlight that the opioid epidemic is becoming an increasingly dire issue, and with bipartisan support from around the nation, it is clear that further resources should be allocated to solve the opioid epidemic. “The opiate crisis is killing our friends, killing our neighbors, killing our loved ones and despite our best efforts it is only getting worse,” said Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe at a town hall meeting on May 8th, “People are dying here, and we ought to be doing everything we can.”