Although a significant number of Douglas County overdose deaths involve opioids, deaths related to stimulant overdoses are increasing, too, especially among people of color.
At their first Public Health After Dark forum Monday, representatives of Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health and area health organizations shared data on drug overdose deaths in Douglas County as well as an overview of local work underway to prevent and address the problem.
According to preliminary data released Monday by LDCPH, overdose deaths involving opioids accounted for two-thirds of overdose deaths during the last 15 years. Drug overdose deaths from 2018 to 2022 increased 43% in Douglas County over the previous four-year period.
Opioids — which come in prescription and illicit forms — block pain signals from the brain to the body and release large amounts of dopamine throughout the body, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s website. Examples include pain pills, codeine, heroin, morphine, fentanyl and methadone.
Kansas death records show 95 opioid-related deaths in Douglas County from 2012 to 2021, according to Scott Johnston, epidemiologist with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Johnston said talking about substance use disorders requires a broad approach to a complex problem, but the people aspect of the matter can’t be forgotten.
“I try to remind myself of that a lot when I’m looking at the numbers at my job,” Johnston said.”So just remembering, and the way we speak about this issue. Keep the dignity of the human person in mind and not defined by their substance use.”
Dr. Dee Kinard, LDCPH senior analyst, said the highest overdose death rates involving opioids in the last 15 years occurred among those 30 to 49 years old, followed by those 50 years and older. More males died of drug overdoses, including opioid deaths, which accounted for 68% of all male overdose deaths in Douglas County from 2008 to 2022.
While 43% of all overdose deaths from 2018 to 2022 involved fentanyl, 100% of opioid overdose deaths among people of color involved fentanyl, Kinard said. Psychostimulants such as methamphetamine, methylphenidate and cocaine were involved in half of the overdose deaths among people of color as well. Kinard called the statistics significant.
“So both the fentanyl and the psychostimulants are going to be really important to focus on in our community,” Kinard said.
Kinard also noted the similar rates of overdose death rates involving opioids across Douglas County ranging from Lecompton — the lowest, at 45.9% — to Eudora, the highest, at 51% from 2018 to 2022.
“So what this says is that all of our interventions need to touch all four corners of our county,” Kinard said.
Bob Tryanski, Douglas County director of behavioral health projects, characterized the statistics as “sobering” and the challenges as “daunting” but, he said, the community has made a commitment to improve behavioral health across the community in new ways.
He said although there’s still a lot of work to do, big steps have already been taken such as the prioritizing of addiction prevention within the Community Health Plan, the opening of a 24/7 Treatment and Recovery Center, integration of peer support networks across the system of care and a reduction in the number of opioid prescriptions in Douglas County by 23% since 2017.
“And I think it is a reason to be hopeful, that when you focus, when you use local data, when you collaborate, you can make progress,” Tryanski said.
Lisa Russell, chief clinical officer at Heartland Community Health Center, gave attendees an overview of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) offered at the clinic.
“So it’s not just about willpower. It’s not just about therapy,” Russell said. “We know that your brain changes when you use opioids and there are medications now that can be used to help with that. And we know that using medication in combination with therapy is the most helpful.”
Russell said statistics show 94% of people experiencing substance use disorder don’t pursue MAT. Many people probably don’t know it’s an option, Russell said. Heartland Community Health Center offers buprenorphine and naltrexone, including options for pregnant people and those with liver impairments.
With the exception of late-in-the-day requests, intake appointments can be arranged — often the same day — for those experiencing withdrawal. Crisis walk-ins also are accepted.
Most patients seeking MAT no longer use substances to feel high but instead use to “function and feel normal,” Russell said.
“So what these medications can do is help them achieve that,” she said.
Russell encouraged those interested to call the clinic at 785-841-7297 for more information.
Lydia Fuqua, DCCCA program manager of prevention services and project coordinator of Engage Douglas County, gave an overview of DCCCA’s programs in prevention and harm reduction.
Statewide DCCCA initiatives include distribution of naloxone, or Narcan, the opioid overdose reversal drug. During the last year, Fuqua said, 23,000 kits have been distributed across Kansas. DCCCA filled 800 orders in October for fentanyl test strip distribution, which began in October.
And installation will soon take place in the community for five ONEbox devices — kits that contain a nasal naloxone kit and a brief training video — as well as vending machines that will distribute health items such as condoms, naloxone and fentanyl test strips.
“Just another way to offer that life-saving drug to somebody who needs it,” Fuqua said.
To order naloxone or fentanyl strips at no cost, visit the DCCCA website at dccca.org/naloxone-kit-request-form.
Kyle Eichelberger, LMH Health clinical pharmacist and chair of the opioid stewardship committee, also shared information about the hospital’s efforts to ensure safe and responsible pain management and opioid use among patients, as well as the hospital’s efforts to ensure safe disposal of unused medications.
Executive Director Jonathan Smith, who assumed leadership at LDCPH in July, told the crowd that “one overdose is far too many in this county.”
Smith said there would be additional topics offered in the Public Health After Dark series.
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Note: A misspelled name in this post has been corrected.