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Department of Behavioral Health Announces Early Outcomes from The District’s Efforts to Reduce Opioid Deaths

Friday, January 31, 2020


Media Contact: Erica Cunningham
(202) 727.9033 (desk) (202) 365.8890 mobile

(WASHINGTON, DC) – The Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) announced preliminary outcomes from the agency’s efforts to slow the number of opioid deaths in the District of Columbia. With data reflecting the first 10-month period since DBH first released its strategic plan -- Live. Long. DC -- to reduce opioid misuse and related deaths, the outcomes are mixed, spotlighting the need for continued work and future program adjustments, while also providing reasons for cautious optimism.

Since the plan was released in December 2018, there have been 220 opioid deaths through October 2019. This represents a 22 percent increase when compared to the same time period in 2018. Based on the average number of opioid deaths per month through October 2019, the total number of deaths is predicted to reach 264 when the final mortality figures for 2019 are compiled. This projects to a 24 percent increase from the recorded figures for 2018 but remains less than the historically high levels witnessed by the District in 2017.

There are three factors which appear to be driving the increase in overall opioid deaths for the District in 2019. First, it appears that there is a higher prevalence of the opioid Fentanyl among persons who died of an overdose in this year. Fentanyl has a greater potency in smaller doses relative to heroin and was a factor in approximately 9 out of 10 opioid deaths observed for the first 10 months in 2019. For the number of deaths involving Fentanyl only, there was a 46 percent increase when compared to a full calendar year in 2018. For Fentanyl used with cocaine, the increase was 19 percent.

Second, the data show that deadly drug using behaviors are increasing in other populations that were not specifically targeted by Live. Long. DC. Most especially, the younger 20-29 age cohort, has experienced a growth in deaths for the first 10 months in 2019 that is more than three times higher than witnessed for all of 2018. Further, for one of the oldest age cohorts -- those ages 60-69 -- who were not specifically targeted by the strategic plan, the opioid mortality level is 16 percent higher over 10 months in 2019 than was observed for a full calendar year in 2018.

Finally, over a shorter time period, there has been a sharp increase in opioid deaths (30%) among persons who were not residents of the District of Columbia. The fact that the District’s harm reduction programs -- the concept of decreasing the amount of injury to a person engaged in risky behavior, while encouraging healthier habits -- do not extend to non-residents, is likely a factor in this outcome.

Still, when these preliminary data are examined in more detail for 10 months in 2019, there are reasons for some optimism. Through its strategic plan, DBH focused on reversing the drug using behaviors of middle age African Americans who lived in Wards 7 and 8. Data indicated that these individuals were long-time heroin users, offering the possibility that if their addictions could be abated, the District would witness a decline in opioid overdoses and deaths. While data for the last two months of 2019 must still be considered, it appears that the efforts connecting persons to treatment may be slowing the number of deaths for the middle age cohorts. This trend warrants continued monitoring.

In 2019, District agencies were able to provide medication assisted treatment to more opioid users in hospital emergency rooms, community clinics and the DC Jail. Lifesaving naloxone now is widely available and reversing overdoses among opioid users. Through the District’s combined efforts and guided by Live. Long. DC, the following accomplishments were achieved:

  • Increased the number of recipients of Medication Assisted Treatment by 66 percent;
  • Made Medication Assisted Treatment available in emergency departments of four community hospitals;
  • Funded buprenorphine in seven community clinics;
  • Opened three new recovery homes for persons suffering with opioid use disorders;
  • Started Rapid Peer Response program through DC Health, to connect persons with addictions to peer supports;
  • Launched a 24-hour Community Response Team to connect those experiencing behavioral health challenges to substance use and mental health treatments and supports
  • Distributed nearly 50,000 naloxone kits and reversed more than 1,100 opioid overdoses with naloxone, including more than 300 reversals by Metropolitan Police Department;
  • Awarded $575,000 grants to 23 faith-led institutions that promote awareness of available treatment and supports and combat stigma.
  • Received approval for Medicaid reimbursement for job support for individuals in recovery from substance use disorders

DBH and our partner agencies will both continue these efforts in 2020 and consider new approaches to address the changing dynamic of opioid use in the District.