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Opioid Deaths Hit Peak In St. Louis, With Other Drugs Gaining Ground

The opioid prescribing rate in Missouri went up close to 10 percent between 2017 and 2018 within counties participating in the state's drug monitoring program
Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio
Opioid overdose deaths increased 30% in 2018, a new record in the St. Louis region.

Nearly three people a day died of opioid overdoses in St. Louis last year, according to data released by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.

There were 1,080 people who died of opioids in St. Louis and eight surrounding counties, up 30% from the year before. 

The 2018 count, released this week, marks the 12th consecutive year of rising drug-related fatalities in the region.

"Until we are able to take the steps necessary to address this crisis, this will be the new normal," said Brandon Costerison, the organization’s spokesman. "But we can’t accept that."

Last year, drug overdose deaths decreased in 34 states. Missouri wasn’t one of them. Instead, the state saw thesecond-highest increase in the nation after Delaware. 

Missouri needs to invest more in prevention and addiction treatment, Costerison said. Unlike other states, it hasn’t expanded its Medicaid program, which would give poor people in the region access to insurance and recovery programs. The state’s Medicaid program currently covers only children and people with disabilities. 

Federal opioid treatment grants have increased Missourians’ accessto the overdose-reversal drug naloxone and provided counseling and residential services to thousands of people. Without that help, the death toll would have been even higher, Costerison said.

Many of the region’s deaths are due to fentanyl, the potent man-made opioid that is often combined with other drugs in unknown amounts. 

Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin and can be produced more quickly and cheaply. Just a small amount can kill people.

The number of deaths involving non-opioid drugs also is rising, Costerison said. Drugs such as methamphetamine are being combined with fentanyl with deadly results, NCADA officials said. 

Nearly 300 people in the region died of cocaine and methamphetamine overdoses in 2018, a 104% increase over the year before.

“We’re also seeing lots of deaths involving just stimulants, causing heart attacks,” he said. 

Missouri is right to focus its attention on opioid addiction, Costerison said. But public health officials need to be aware that other drugs are becoming deadly.

“Opioids are by far leading the pack,” he said. “However, what we can’t do is get tunnel vision and look at just opioids, because these other substances are killing folks as well.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.