Opioid deaths declining? New numbers offer hope, says state attorney


As the opioid epidemic continues to rage across the United States, the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office is embracing two new local statistics as evidence that their efforts to curb the county’s crisis are working.

Delray Beach, considered the epicenter of the county’s epidemic, went through the month of June without recording a single opioid-related overdose death – the first time that’s happened since July 2015.

And countywide, the number of deaths related to opioid overdoses is trending down dramatically – 88 over the first four months of this year compared with 233 over the first four months of 2017, according to Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s statistics shared with The Palm Beach Post by the state attorney’s office.

“That’s a drop of 62 percent,’’ State Attorney Dave Aronberg said Friday. “That’s a dramatic drop and it’s counter to the national trend, which is moving in this opposite direction.’’

He cautioned that those numbers are only “a snapshot” of a four-month period and could change, possibly for the worse, by the end of the year. And Delray Beach’s streak didn’t last long – there was at least one opioid-related death there over the first five days of July, according to the police department.

Still, he said, the statistics should offer encouragement to local communities that have been struggling to fight the epidemic for more than five years.

“These are statistics we can be proud of,’’ said Aronberg, who credited work by county task forces on heroin and sober homes as well as “aggressive” measures by Delray Beach and other cities.

“This has been an all-hands-on-deck approach to the epidemic. We are doing this without help from the federal government, which has largely ignored this problem and left the response to local and state governments. We have been fighting this fight sometimes with one hand tied behind our backs,’’ he said.

Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Bell could not be reached Friday to confirm the numbers. In January, he said he expected the number of opioid overdose deaths in the county in 2017 to exceed those from 2016 but that the jump wouldn’t be as dramatic as in previous years.

Nationwide, 200 people are dying of drug overdoses every day, the majority related to opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although Aronberg said he didn’t have fresh statistics from other communities Friday, he said the Delray Beach numbers should offer hope, since that city was one of the communities hardest hit by the epidemic in previous years.

Delray Beach has seen eight overdose deaths through June of this year, compared with 57 in 2017, according to the police department. And the number of drug overdoses overall is continuing to drop — 119 in the first six months of this year compared with 625 in 2017.

READ: Wolfie and the Addicts: A Palm Beach fortune, a deathbed wedding, two overdose deaths

Aronberg credited the Delray Beach Police Department with hiring a new service population advocate — Ariana Ciancio, a licensed mental health counselor and master certified addiction professional.

“Instead of just letting a person be released from a hospital after an overdose, now Ariana follows up with that person and we get that person services,” he said.

“In the past we had endless recycling of people who overdose, get brought back to life, sent to the hospital, only to be released and overdose again — sometimes in the hospital’s own parking lot. We have broken that vicious cycle, at least in part in this county.”

Also, Delray Beach and West Palm Beach are both seeing fewer sober homes, said Chief Assistant State Attorney Al Johnson, who credited new legislation that grew from the sober home task force.

The operators of many of those shuttered sober homes are now setting up in Southern California, said Johnson, who testified earlier this year before the California Senate.

Aronberg said he has met with community leaders in Orange County, Calif., to offer advice on “how to deal with this growing crisis. They sent a delegation of prosecutors here to find out what we are doing.’’

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is preparing to introduce legislation that prohibits drug addiction call centers from making money off patient referrals without verifying whether treatment centers are reputable.

Rubio has credited Aronberg and Johnson for bringing the issue to his attention, according to the Miami Herald.

“We are leading the rest of the country in this effort,’’ Aronberg said.



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