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Emergency room data shows the opioid crisis continues to accelerate

Portland, Maine, Deputy Fire Chief Terry Walsh responds to a possible heroin overdose on July 4, 2015. (Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)
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More than 142,000 people were taken to emergency departments for opioid overdoses during a recent 15-month period, the latest sign the drug epidemic continues to worsen despite the efforts of public health authorities.

The 142,557 emergency visits in 45 states marked a nearly 30 percent increase between the third quarter of 2016 and the same period of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday. In 16 states that have suffered high rates of overdose deaths, the jump was even higher, at 34.5 percent. No region or demographic group was spared, and two states — Wisconsin and Delaware — saw overdose visits to their emergency rooms more than double.

The data represent yet another dismal sign that efforts to curb the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history have not taken hold in most of the country. Unlike the annual tally of overdose deaths, which lag behind by a year, they provide recent evidence that the crisis continues to head in the wrong direction. Nearly 64,000 people died of drug overdoses, two-thirds of them from opioids, in 2016.

“The bottom line,” said Anne Schuchat, the CDC's acting director, “is that no area of the United States is exempt from this epidemic.”

She added that the emergency room data show “for every fatal case, there are many more nonfatal cases, each one with its own personal and economic toll.”

The data also confirmed again that the drug crisis, which started in rural America with the diversion of hundreds of millions of prescription painkillers to the black market, has struck cities hard, probably because of the increase in the use of the street drugs heroin and fentanyl.

The survey did find small declines in overdose emergency room visits in a few states, including Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The drops were considered too small to be significant and may have occurred because those states had very high overdose rates in previous years, Schuchat said.

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