By Ramon Castellblanch
Special to the Herald
For years, the opioid epidemic has been raging across the U.S. and it’s hitting Benicia and east Vallejo particularly hard. Our state public health department has found that both Benicia and East Vallejo have opioid overdose rates above the state average. Opioid overdoses are life-threatening. From 1999 to 2015, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioids and heroin) quadrupled. From 2000 to 2015, more than half a million Americans died from drug overdoses. By 2014, drug overdose deaths greatly exceeded those from either car crashes or guns and most drug overdose deaths were due to opioids. An August US Centers for Disease Control report shows that, from 2015 to 2016, overdose deaths involving opioids, including heroin, rose even faster, from 35,890 to 50,018, a 39 percent increase.
We don’t know Solano County’s opioid overdose death count, as the county grand jury found in May that our coroner “is not using available resources to identify and investigate opioid deaths within Solano County.” But we do know our county’s prescribing count and, over the past 15 years, U.S. opioid prescriptions and opioid overdose deaths have risen roughly at the same rate.
According to our state public health department, there were 77.4 opioid prescriptions for every 100 adults in Solano in 2015. According to the CDC, the national average of opioid prescriptions was70.6 per 100 persons in 2015. So, Solano appears to be smack dab in the middle of America’s opioid epidemic.
Six Bay Area counties have formed opioid safety coalitions to take on this epidemic. For example, there are opioid safety coalitions on either side of Solano County, one in Contra Costa County and another in Napa County. Some coalitions have greatly expanded who can get the medically assisted treatment needed to kick the opioid habit. Some have gotten naloxone, an antidote to opioid overdoses, to as many healthcare workers and first-responders as possible in their jurisdictions. San Francisco, Marin, Santa Clara, and Alameda counties have set up 7 days a week drug take-back programs to get unused opioids out of medicine cabinets and into safe disposal facilities. One coalition has put up patient education posters on opioid risks in doctor’s offices around their county.
But, Solano County has no opioid safety coalition. So, many first-responders in Solano are not carrying naloxone. The county courts have no in-county facilities where they can send offenders for medically assisted treatment. Drug take-back programs are basically limited to semi-annual one-day Drug Enforcement Agency programs. There is no county-coordinated effort to educate patients about opioid risks.
A county-coordinated response to the opioid epidemic could well save lives in Solano County, particularly Benicia, Vallejo, and Rio Vista. As a San Francisco State health education professor and former member of the state pharmacy board, I’ve been trying to get one started for over a year, but progress has been slow. I’ve tried our local Medi-Cal plan, county supervisors, and other county leaders; but, without pressure from county residents, it has not been enough. If you’d like to join me in this effort, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ramon Castellblanch is a professor of health education at San Francisco State University.