From 2007 to 2010, Utah experienced some good news in the fight against opioid overdose. In that three-year period, the number of Utah residents who died as a result of prescription opioid overdose decreased every year.
Since then, the reports have been increasingly grim.
Between 2010 and 2014 (the most recent year for which complete statistics are currently available) the annual number of deaths in Utah that resulted from prescription opioid abuse grew by 27 percent. Four years of annual increases brought the number of deaths from prescription opioid abuse from 236 in 2010 to 300 in 2014.
When the ongoing abuse of non-prescription opioids, such as heroin, is factored into the equation, the results become even bleaker. The Salt Lake City greater metropolitan area has been hit hard by the state’s opioid abuse epidemic, but the problem does not stop there. Only three states have a higher annual rate of opioid-related deaths than Utah does.
During a September conference in Salt Lake City that focused on how to fight the opioid problem, Brian Besser, a Utah-based agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), described the state’s opioid abuse epidemic as “the bane of our existence.”
As the existence of this conference indicates, officials, experts, and leaders throughout the state know that the Utah is in the midst of an opioid-related crisis, and are working to develop solutions. Though much work remains to be done, multiple efforts have been launched, with a focus on three important elements: education, legislation, and medication.
In May 2016, the Opiate Overdose Response Act was signed into law. Among the provisions of this legislation is expanded access to naloxone. Often sold under the brand name Narcan, naloxone is an opioid antagonist medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and prevent death if the drug is administered in a timely manner. This legal change is supported by Utah’s Good Samaritan Act, which prohibits civil punishments for individuals who act in good faith to render emergency care.
Naloxone has been used in hospital emergency rooms since the early 1970s, but increased awareness of its effectiveness, combined with rising rates of opioid abuse and overdose throughout the nation, has in recent years prompted many states to permit police officers, other first responders, and even non-professionals to access and use this medication.
“We want people to call 911 and immediately use Narcan. And it will reverse almost instantly the effect of an opiate because it blocks the receptors in the brain that opiates affect,” Rep. Spackman Moss said when similar legislation was introduced in 2014.
Though much work remains to be done, the effort to educate people about the scope of Utah’s opioid overdose epidemic and teach them how to effectively use naloxone, and the legislative changes that have increased access this life-saving medication, appears to be having a positive impact. In November 2016, Dr. Jennifer Plumb, the pediatrician who serves as medical director for Utah Naloxone, said that in the six months since the Opioid Overdose Response Act had become law, law enforcement officials had been able to use the medication to save 23 people who had overdosed on opioids.