LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Improvements in data quality have the Centers for Disease Control sending out updated state-level numbers tracking overdose deaths in the United States right up until the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The trends have Arkansas health officials cautiously optimistic that declines that began before the virus threat will continue despite the disruption and isolation many people struggling with opioid addictions have faced these last seven months.
"We know that we are decreasing our numbers of overdose. It's what we have been saying for the last several months," said Kirk Lane, the state drug director.
The data released by the National Center for Health Statistics updates the provisional drug overdose death counts. It includes graphs and maps that show the U.S. has seen a steady increase in overdose deaths since January 2015.
The line climbs to a projection of about 75,000 deaths.
But Arkansas' trend line follows a similar climb until the latter part of 2018 when it takes a welcome nose dive.
"We know that the state went through an 18.1 percent decline in overdose deaths compared to 2018," Lane said. "So we're still getting some of those good numbers."
Reasons include an increase in Naloxone programs, the drug with the brand name Narcan that can rapidly reverse the effects of an overdose. Lane says opioid prescription writing finally started to go down as well.
Those trends put Arkansas among a dozen states projecting declines in deaths this year, while the rest of the country is expected to see an increase of around 9.1 percent.
But there is a catch.
"Those numbers are provisional," Lane said. "That means they haven't been verified yet and it takes some time to provide that.
Arkansas is not one of those states that substantially improved its data quality according to the CDC Improvement will have to come from the people who verify overdose deaths: county coroners.
Many have been strained by covid deaths this year.
Health officials think the daily reporting of pandemic data could spur more coroners to use the real-time overdose tools the state offers. Helping to indeed verify the victories in the drug epidemic despite the global pandemic.
"I think if we can apply some of the same principles it would really help us and really help us get resources like naloxone and education in the communities that really need it," Lane said.
Another important caution Lane points to is that Narcan use has surged during the pandemic, meaning people are still overdosing, but naloxone is saving many of them.
Isolation contributes to that for many people with a history of opioid dependency. Lane says the state has been working on virtual treatment programs until we get back to whatever the "new normal" is.