By Seth Klamann
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CASPER — Wyoming experienced a 33 percent drop in overdose deaths between January 2017 and the beginning of this year, state and federal reports found, the highest drop in the nation.
But health officials are hesitant to say Wyoming has solved its drug problem.
“We don’t want to attribute it to a trend because we don’t know it’s going to continue,” state Department of Health spokeswoman Kim Deti said. “We’ve had those ups and downs before.”
Wyoming had 91 such deaths by the start of 2017, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, compared to 60 as of January 2018. That tracks close to what the Health Department recorded — 94 and 60 — during a similar time period.
Three of Wyoming’s neighbors saw similar drops over the 12-month period. Montana experienced a 6.7 decline, South Dakota an 8 percent drop, and Utah just under 1 percent.
But Nebraska had a 33 percent jump between January 2017 and 2018, the highest in the country. Colorado had a 7.5 percent increase, and Idaho inched up by 0.4 percent.
A spokeswoman for the CDC said the report is a rolling total updated each month, corresponding to a previous 12-month period. So this report stretched from January 2017 to January ‘18. July’s CDC report examined December 2016 to December 2017, and so on.
But Deti said the numbers basically tracked her department’s year-end totals.
The figures represent all overdoses, not just a specific class of drugs, like opioids. But prescription drugs represent the largest share. In 2017, there were 40 deaths related to medications, compared to 11 for illicit drugs, eight for a combination of drugs, and one unspecified. In 2016, 53 of the 94 overdoses were from prescription drugs.
That unspecified number is important, Deti said, because it shows coroners are gaining the ability to correctly test for specific kinds of drug overdoses. In some previous years, the number of unspecified deaths was as high as 55 percent.
The CDC report also says Wyoming’s reported deaths are underreported because of incomplete data.
Deti said she wasn’t sure where that came from; she said Wyoming has been working hard to ensure specific reporting. Health officials have previously said coroners here can be inconsistent — because of a lack of testing, for instance — in death certificates and causes of death.
Why exactly Wyoming has experienced this drop — particularly when Nebraska, for instance, has seen significant jumps — is unclear, Deti said. One explanation is increased awareness of drugs like opioids. Another is Wyoming’s low population, which can swing statistics like this significantly from year to year. That population has also been declining in recent years, in the wake of Wyoming’s economic downturn.
“We can’t tell you for sure why deaths went down,” she said. “We just can’t.”
Another explanation is the increase availability of narcan and Naloxone, opioid antagonists that can stop overdoses. But Deti again cautioned against using that metric alone — the antagonists’ use doesn’t necessarily mean the patient had an overdose.
Wide swings in Wyoming’s overdose totals are common, though none as drastic as this. There were 95 in 2015, and 107 in 2014. In 2004, there were 39, and 2005 had 49 such deaths. But the data roughly corresponds with the spike in opioid deaths across the country.
Deti cautioned against applying what’s happening here to what’s happening elsewhere, particularly in places where overdoses are particularly bad.
“There are some parallels to what’s going on nationally,” she said. “But what’s not going on, what’s not paralleled are areas getting hit the worst.”