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Two hundred and twenty people have died of a drug overdose so far in 2017, nine more than died of an overdose in all of 2016.
The increase in deaths, based on numbers reported to the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics through Tuesday, comes even as several state agencies put considerable muscle into combating the state’s nascent epidemic, from re-evaluating how opioids are prescribed to hosting town halls across the state.
“We have a plan in place,” said John Dowdy, director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics. “Obviously, we didn’t get here overnight. We’re not going to get out of it overnight.”
Although opiates, which include prescription narcotics such as oxycodone and morphine as well as illegal drugs like heroin and fentanyl, are not the only drugs included in the numbers of overdose deaths, Dowdy said they account for the majority of them. As of late September, the most recent date for which these numbers were available, the Bureau of Narcotics had confirmed 143 drug overdose deaths in Mississippi. Of those, 78 were due to prescription opioids, 20 were due to heroin and 28 were due to fentanyl. Only 15 were non-opioid substances.
It’s likely, however, that the numbers, which are based solely on reports from county coroners, don’t show the full picture. Last year, coroners reported a total of 101 drug overdose deaths to the Bureau of Narcotics. In a subsequent audit of death records from the Department of Vital Statistics, the Bureau of Narcotics confirmed a total of 211 drug overdose deaths in Mississippi for 2016.
The fact that coroners’ reports from 2017 more than doubled numbers from the year before is a sign that reporting is improving, according to Dowdy. But he said it’s also a sign that the epidemic is getting worse.
“It’s getting that much worse, that much more quickly,” Dowdy said.
In Hinds County, reported overdose deaths more than quadrupled, from 6 in 2016 to 27 so far in 2017. In Harrison County, those deaths more than doubled, going from 12 last year to 26 this year.
The Gulf Coast region and Jackson metropolitan area have been the hardest hit by drug overdoses, with 33 and 52 deaths in those areas, respectively, this year.
But this year’s numbers also show the epidemic burrowing into pockets across Mississippi, from DeSoto County, with a total of 16 reported deaths, to the Delta and the eastern side of the state.
As a result, efforts to combat the epidemic have largely been statewide. This summer the State Medical Association partnered with three state agencies, the Bureau of Narcotics, the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Public Safety, on a statewide Opioid Summit. The Opioid and Heroin Study Task Force, which Gov. Phil Bryant convened this year, also includes medical professionals and lawmakers from across the state. In August, they released a report with 44 policy recommendations.
But making large-scale changes has proven unwieldy. In response to a list of recommendations from the Task Force, Mississippi’s Board of Medical Licensure, which governs all doctors, revised its recommendations for prescribing opioids. But the new recommendations proved highly controversial with more than two dozen doctors speaking out against them at this month’s board meeting. As of Wednesday, the board had not yet voted on whether to approve any changes.
Other Task Force recommendations, such as the call to increase the number of state medical examiners and employees in the state Crime Lab, have received attention from the press but can’t be implemented without more funding from the Legislature.
“With the plan that we have in place, if it is implemented to its fullest, I do believe that we are prepared to handle this,” Dowdy said. “But it is gonna take everybody doing their part to make sure that we get ahead of this thing and keep a handle on it. And that includes the Legislature.”