Last year was the deadliest ever for drug deaths in Tennessee, and while most of the nation appears to have gained ground on the opioid crisis, the Volunteer State has not.
According to new statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 1,837 people died of drug overdoses in Tennessee in 2018. The CDC estimates that an additional 89 people also died of drug overdoses, but those deaths remain unconfirmed by toxicology tests.
Even excluding the estimated deaths, the 2018 death toll is an increase of 3% over 2017, which was previously the deadliest year on record.
The CDC data released this week does not reveal what drugs caused each overdose, but state experts believe Tennessee’s increase is largely attributable to rising fentanyl and methamphetamine deaths. State epidemiologist Dr. Tim Jones said the state had made significant progress cutting down on prescription opioid abuse, but these gains had been outweighed by fentanyl and meth overdoses.
“We were once close to the top of the pile in terms of prescription opioid use, abuse and therefore deaths,” Jones said. “Unfortunately, as we’ve decreased opioid prescriptions, there are still people who are really dependent, and it can drive to heroin, fentanyl and other drugs.”But that doesn’t explain why Tennessee is an outlier in a nation that appears to be gaining ground on the opioid crisis. The CDC reports that nationwide overdoses fell more than 4% in 2018. Overdose deaths dropped more dramatically in other Appalachian states that were among those hit hardest by the epidemic — including Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky.Jones said it was unclear why neighboring states had turned a corner when Tennessee had not. Within the Department of Health, it remains a frustrating mystery, he said
Overdose deaths increased here in 2018 despite decreasing in neighboring Appalachian states and most of the nation.
“We will take any good ideas, from anywhere, as to how to help stop this,” Jones said.
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The new CDC data was also “very concerning” to Dr. Howard Taylor, lab director for American Addiction Centers in Brentwood, which tests drug samples collected nationwide. Taylor said one of the strongest indicators for overdose deaths was the availability and quality of addiction treatment, so he questioned if shortcomings in treatment were holding Tennessee back.
“My concern is that Tennessee is falling behind our neighbors and the rest of the country in terms of what we are offering people for treatment,” Taylor said.