What comes to mind when you think of New Jersey? The Garden State? The boardwalk in Atlantic City? The state is known for many things, but if recent trends don’t change, it’ll also be known for its number of fatal drug overdoses.
While the opioid epidemic sweeps the nation, New Jersey is seeing ever-increasing numbers of fatal overdoses. Monmouth County has been hit particularly hard. There were 88 overdose deaths in Monmouth County in 2012; this figure rose to 122 by 2015. And these deaths are occurring across a wide spectrum of the population - age, income, and race don’t matter.
This deadly trend isn't isolated to a few select pockets of New Jersey; sadly, it's occurring throughout the state.
Why the Rising Death Toll?
Part of the problem is the new potency of drugs. Heroin users often don’t realize they're buying drugs laced with fentanyl – a synthetic opioid that comes in powder form, is cheap to buy, and packs a punch up to 50 times stronger than that of heroin. Even a small dusting of fentanyl has been known to kill on contact.
As more dealers look to fentanyl for an easy way to add weight to each bag of heroin, the risk of overdose increases by leaps and bounds. Between 2013 and 2015, overdose deaths related to fentanyl tripled across the state.
Alarmed by the growing overdose numbers, New Jersey officials are now creating strategies to fight back. Their main weapon is naloxone – an injectable antidote that reverses the effects of an overdose. Naloxone, commonly referred to by its brand name, Narcan, has become standard equipment for first responders statewide, greatly increasing their chances of saving someone from an overdose. Monmouth County, in particular, has seen a 90-percent success rate on overdose reversals using Narcan.
County Prosecutor Christopher J. Gramiccioni recently announced an expansion of access to Narcan. All of the county’s public and private schools will now have the antidote on site. He explained, “We have not had a drug overdose death at any school in Monmouth County. But with that said, one never knows whether an overdose could occur at or near a school. Having additional trained staff to administer naloxone, if necessary, can save a life. This training is precautionary, but a necessary safeguard in light of the scope of this epidemic. I hope schools never have to use these kits, but we want them to be prepared."
Fighting the Good Fight
Neighboring Ocean County has also taken steps to reduce the growing number of overdoses. Here, the prosecutor’s office launched a Recovery Coach Program that offers treatment options to overdose victims who have been revived by Narcan. Trained recovery coaches follow up with patients for at least eight weeks after they are released from the hospital. Since many overdose victims are revived with Narcan on more than one occasion, the goal is to make sure these people have access to the professional treatment services they need and deserve – and ultimately stop the vicious cycle of abuse and overdose.
As healthcare and law officials put forth these efforts, they admit the battle is long and hard. Gramiccioni confesses, “I'd love to tell you we're winning this and we'll solve it in the next couple years, but I can't tell you that. There's still a lot of work to be done."
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