Editorial: The community must rally to prevent overdose deaths

Overdose deaths in Bartholomew County and Indiana continue at a heartbreaking pace in an epidemic that shows no sign of easing.

As reported Sunday by The Republic’s Andy East, there had been 28 fatal drug overdoses in the county through mid-November, close to another grim yearly record. The deadly potent synthetic opioid fentanyl is the latest scourge most to blame for local deaths as well as the estimated 2,487 Hoosiers who died from overdoses from May 2020 to April 2021. They were among the record 100,000-plus Americans who died of an opioid overdose during that time period.

The COVID pandemic and the isolation that came with it helped fuel this rise, but to be blunt, we as a society really don’t care as much as we should.

It’s tempting to believe that we’ve done all we can, and that those who’ve died or fallen into the grip of addiction are simply beyond our reach, past the point of rescue. But that’s letting ourselves off far too easily, especially because about 80 percent of those who overdose can trace their opioid abuse disorder to a prescription painkiller.

We have got to, at long last, rally as a community, as a state and as a nation to address opioid use disorder as an urgent public — and personal — health crisis. We’ll need to harness all the compassion, patience and understanding we can muster.

We need to commit to inpatient treatment on demand for those who are facing life-or-death addictions. There should be no argument about this. If someone is asking for help to get clean, how can we possibly turn that person away?

Yet we often do.

As Indiana University reported in documenting the opioid crisis, “Hoosiers who want to stop using drugs are faced not only with the challenge of physical withdrawal, but also with poor access to treatment, particularly medication-assisted treatment (MAT), the evidence-based standard for opioid treatment. Treatment that is available is often costly or far from home. Some areas of the state have no addiction treatment at all.”

IU wrote this in 2017. Not nearly enough has changed.

We have failed to meet this crisis with the urgency and the action it requires. So many of us have friends and loved ones who have fallen into addiction, and yet we know recovery is possible.

We need the will to fund such programs and the flexibility to invest in treatments that are proven to work and save lives.

Of course, this will be expensive. But how costly has it been for Indiana that 4,000 Hoosiers — at an average age of 39 — had died from opioids in the decade ending in 2017, according to IU? As last year’s toll shows, that number is skyrocketing. And how much worse would the current numbers be without the lifesaving introduction of Naloxone?

As East reported, the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress in Columbus has continued to see a steady stream of people seeking help. “The combination of COVID and fentanyl have just absolutely ravaged the population that we’re here to serve,” ASAP Director of Operations Matthew Neville said.

For all the good that groups like ASAP are doing, they and their clients can’t wait. We need bold leadership and a commitment that every person who wants to get clean gets that chance — and a place in treatment — as soon as possible.