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Experts identify US counties with an elevated risk of opioid overdose deaths

Researchers at the University of Michigan have identified dozens of counties across the midwestern and southern United States with the highest risk of opioid-related fatalities. A study of over 3,000 counties revealed that 412 counties have at least double the risk of opioid overdose deaths. 

The states that have the most high-risk counties include North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, Michigan, Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana, Georgia, Oklahoma, West Virginia, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Florida. Many of these regions were also found to be more likely to lack providers who can deliver medications to treat opioid use disorder.

Study lead author Rebecca Haffajee is an assistant professor of Health Management and Policy at the U-M School of Public Health.

“We hope policymakers can use this information to funnel additional money and resources to specific counties within their states,” said Professor Haffajee. “We need more strategies to augment and increase the primary care provider workforce in those high-risk counties, people who are willing and able to provide opioid use disorder treatments.”

The researchers analyzed opioid overdose mortality rates in 3,142 U.S. counties between January 2015 and December 2017. A high-risk county was defined as one with opioid overdose mortality above the national average and with a lower number of providers to deliver opioid use disorder medications.

According to the experts, the study is the first of its kind to include data from all three opioid use disorder medications on the market including methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone. 

Professor Haffajee emphasized the importance of understanding the differences of the opioid epidemic at the local level.

“In rural areas, the opioid crisis is often still a prescription opioid issue. But in metropolitan counties, highly potent illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are more prevalent and are killing people. That’s likely why we identified metropolitan areas as higher-risk, despite the fact that these counties typically have some (just not enough) treatment providers,” explained Professor Haffajee.

“Understanding these differences at the sub-state level and coming up with strategies that target specific county needs can allow us to more efficiently channel the limited amount of resources we have to combat this crisis.”

The study is published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Scotyard

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