There were about 181,806 nonfatal opioid overdoses recorded in the United States in the past year, and it’s taken about 9.8 minutes on average for emergency medical services to reach someone who’s overdosing, according to a data dashboard that the White House debuted Thursday.
This first-of-its-kind dashboard was developed to track nonfatal opioid overdoses, which have become a growing public health concern as the US struggles with a decades-long opioid epidemic.
The dashboard is expected to be updated every Monday morning, with a two-week lag in the data.
It shows that as of this week, compared with the national rate of nonfatal overdoses, some of the top cities and counties with rates that are much higher than average, per 100,000 people in their population, are Portsmouth, Virginia; Powell, Kentucky; Philadelphia; Caroll, Kentucky; and Walker, Alabama.
A tool for community response
Until now, federal health officials generally have monitored only opioid overdose deaths, according to the Biden administration’s Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Obtaining and monitoring more real-time data on opioid overdoses that do not end in death could help predict where overdose deaths are more likely to happen and where there might be an increased need for first responders as well as the life-saving medication naloxone, which temporarily reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, Dr. Rahul Gupta, the nation’s drug czar, said Wednesday.
The hope is for the dashboard to be used by first responders, clinicians and policymakers. It will “empower local communities” to tailor their opioid overdose responses and track their progress, Gupta said.
“When we look at the most recent drug fatality data from the [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], we see more than 81,000 overdose deaths involving opioids in the past 12 months. Now to me, that means there are nearly 81,000 deaths that could have been prevented,” he said. “We know that there are significantly more nonfatal overdoses than fatal ones, of which there are over 100,000 a year. We also know that experiencing a nonfatal overdose is one of the most important predictors of a future fatal overdose.”
A new way to identify trends
The nonfatal opioid overdose surveillance dashboard uses nationally submitted Emergency Medical Services data, including information about when an ambulance team or other first responders are activated to respond to overdoses and the number of nonfatal drug overdoses EMS professionals encounter.
The dashboard shows state-level and county-level data by the rate of nonfatal opioid overdoses, the average number of naloxone doses administered, the average EMS time to a patient and the percent of patients not taken to a medical facility for further treatment.
“This dashboard puts data to work, strengthening our ability to save lives and fight back against the opioid crisis,” Ann Carlson, acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in a news release.
“State EMS officials and clinicians provide nearly 49 million records a year to the National EMS Information System. This is a treasure trove of data that can help us identify areas most at risk of overdoses and direct resources and support accordingly to respond before it’s too late,” she said.
The new data tracking system could help better identify trends in the opioid epidemic and help inform response efforts, said Dr. Edward Boyer, a medical toxicologist at The Ohio State University in Columbus.
Currently, “we don’t have a great way of identifying who survives overdoses,” he said, but he hopes the new data system could help fill that void.
“This will not tell you about absolute numbers. This will not tell you clinical findings,” Boyer said of the new system, but national trends could emerge that can help health officials plan their response efforts to the opioid epidemic.
For instance, “if you see a potential trend, then you’re going to have to decide if it’s real, and then you have to decide what sort of intervention you do,” he said. “Then you have to decide how you’re going to assess the effectiveness of the intervention. Having a good dataset that spans across time in multiple locations is very, very useful to those ends.”
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Across the United States, the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl has become the most commonly used drug involved in drug overdoses.
In 2020, a report from the CDC found that opioids have “substantial involvement” in nonfatal overdoses, including those involving other types of drugs, and these types of nonfatal overdoses are on the rise.
A study found in 2016 that about 27% of nonfatal cocaine overdoses treated in emergency departments also involved an opioid.