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The number of fatal opioid overdoses continues to rise in Missouri, with Jefferson County experiencing a disproportionate number of those deaths, health officials reported.

Jefferson County had 3 percent of the state’s population in 2017 but 8 percent of the fatal opioid overdoses that year, the Jefferson County Health Department reported.

In 2017, Missouri saw 951 people die from opioid overdoses, and 73 of those were in Jefferson County. In 2018, the state had 1,132 fatal overdoses, including 103 in Jefferson County, the Department of Health and Senior Services reported.

“We are in an area that is considered by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) to be a high drug, high-intensity drug trafficking area,” said Kelley Vollmar, director of the county’s Health Department.

The opioid crisis began about 10 years ago, and the number of overdoses has risen almost every year since then, Vollmar said.

Missouri had 672 fatal overdoses in 2015 and 908 in 2016. Jefferson County saw 52 fatal overdoses in 2015 and 80 in 2016, according to the Department of Health and Senior Services.

In addition, Jefferson County had 260 non-fatal opioid overdoses in 2015, as well as 367 in 2016 and 352 in 2017. Vollmar said the numbers for non-fatal opioid overdoses in 2018 have not yet been released.

Vollmar said she believes the number of overdoses are actually higher than reports indicate.

“Unfortunately, I still think these numbers are low,” she said. “These are for individuals who present to the hospital.”

Vollmar said one reason the numbers might not be accurate is travel.

“Drug use doesn’t stop at county lines,” she said. “So, if you have an individual who is in St. Louis County using up there, but they’re a Jefferson County resident, we don’t always get the information on the overdose up there.”

Another factor that could lead to inaccurate numbers is the cause of death listed on official records, Vollmar said.

“A person may have a heart attack or other issue and that would be the cause of death, but a contributing factor would be the fact that they were using drugs,” she said.

Vollmar said that while the opioid statistics are “sobering,” she is not surprised by them. “Given the number of opioids that are being prescribed within our county, and according to the PDMP (Prescription Drug Monitoring Program) reports, unfortunately, these aren’t shocking numbers,” she said. “Whenever you have that much medication circulating within a community, it’s an unfortunate side effect. You’re going to have people who are not using it for the right reasons.”

Vollmar said the Health Department has been trying to provide education to families about safe handling and storage of prescriptions.

“There are sobering enough numbers that we definitely need to move forward and keep working at this,” she said.

In 2017, according to the Department of Health and Senior Services, 93.65 percent of fatal overdoses happened in a house or an apartment, 3.17 percent occurred in a building other than a home, 1.59 percent happened in a hotel or motel and 1.59 percent happened in a vehicle.

According to the report, 70 percent of non-fatal overdoses seen in Jefferson County in a local ER involved heroin.

The data also showed 91 percent of those who died from an opioid overdose had a history of substance abuse and 25 percent had overdosed before.

The Jefferson County Health Department, which is part of the Enhanced State Opioid Overdose Surveillance program, was one of the first in the state to receive data for the 2017 numbers because of the high number of fatal and non-fatal overdoses, Vollmar said.

In the past, the Health Department didn’t have as much data on the problem, she said.

“We’ve never had access to detailed data like this on our county level and it will definitely help us move forward in our planning efforts,” she said. “So, we’re still in the stages of reviewing it, and really identifying how we can use the data, but we’re going to be taking it to our opioid task force that works towards our coalition and we really look at how the community partners can come together.”

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