The Opioid Epidemic Is Now A Public Health Emergency


President Trump has declared the opioid epidemic in the United States a national public health emergency. The President has directed acting HHS Secretary, Eric Hargan, to declare a public health emergency under the Public Health Services Act. This is different from a national emergency (like those that were declared for Harvey and Irma), which go through the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.

The declaration will free up resources to help combat the epidemic by increasing grant money from federal agencies. This order will also expand access to telemedicine in rural areas, help speed up the hiring process for healthcare professionals working on the crisis, and help break down bureaucratic delays.

According to the CDC, deaths from prescription pain pills, like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone, have quadrupled in the last 18 years. Fentanyl was detected in 56.3% of 5,152 opioid overdose deaths in 10 states during July–December 2016. Among these 2,903 fentanyl-positive deaths, fentanyl was determined to be a cause of death by the medical examiner or coroner in nearly all (97.1%) of the deaths. Northeastern states (Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island) and Missouri reported the highest percentages of opioid overdose deaths involving fentanyl (approximately 60%–90%).

NIOSH has identified the following job categories as positions where responders might come into contact with fentanyl or its analogs:

  • Pre-Hospital Patient Care: Emergency medical services (EMS) providers, including first responders, fire department and private companies who attend to individuals with suspected fentanyl overdose. Responders may encounter drugs or drug paraphernalia on or near the patient.
  • Law Enforcement: Law enforcement officers who perform day-to-day law enforcement duties. Law enforcement officers may come into contact with fentanyl during the course of their daily activities such as traffic stops, apprehending and searching subjects, and responding to fentanyl overdose calls.
  • Investigation and Evidence Handling: Law enforcement personnel who conduct investigations related to fentanyl. Activities may include executing search warrants and collecting, transporting, and storing evidence. Evidence collection activities in the field have the potential to aerosolize powders. Also, law enforcement personnel who handle evidence in the chain of custody have the potential to come into contact with fentanyl unless controls are in place to prevent exposures.
  • Special Operations and Decontamination: Workers who conduct special operations where exposure to large amounts of fentanyl are expected. Examples include hazardous material incident response teams responding to a release or spill, and law enforcement officers executing search warrants on opioid processing or distribution sites, or participating in other tactical operations. These activities may aerosolize powders.

According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, “a majority of abused prescription drugs were obtained from family and friends, often from the home medicine cabinet,” the DEA said in a statement. Another study published last year surveyed 1,000 people with opioid painkiller prescriptions and found that one in five of them admitted sharing their pills with another person.

Oct 28th is National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day, sponsored by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and local agencies, which host events across the country to collect potentially harmful expired, unused or unwanted medications so they can be disposed of safely.

The public can drop off unwanted pills or medication patches between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday at locations in all 50 states. There is no cost and drop-offs can be made anonymously. This will be the 14th National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day. The DEA says so far the events have resulted in more than 8.1 million pounds of pills being turned in. The most recent event, in April, brought in 900,000 pounds of drugs at close to 5,500 sites across the nation.

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