Local health officials appear to be making headway against the flood of opioids prescribed in Northeast Tennessee.
But in a deadly twist, overdose fatalities are rising in area counties, due in part to addicts turning from prescription medication to heroin and fentanyl.
Released in early July, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study analyzed 59,000 pharmacies around the country, finding that opioid prescriptions in Washington, Carter, Unicoi and Sullivan have actually remained steady or decreased between 2010 and 2015.
Because opioid prescriptions come in different strengths and doses, the researchers measured the number of opioid prescriptions based on morphine milligram equivalents, or MME, per person.
Sullivan County easily topped the Upper East Tennessee region in the amount of morphine equivalents per capita both in 2010 and 2015, but showed a slight decline during the interval.
Unicoi County showed the most progress in decreasing its opioid prescription rate: declining 449 morphine equivalents per capita between 2010 and 2015.
But despite the progress made, all four Northeast Tennessee counties significantly out-prescribed opioids compared to the nationwide number of 640 milligrams of morphine equivalency per person in 2015. The local counties were also ranked in the fourth quartile of counties nationwide based on the high number of opioid prescriptions per person.
And overdose deaths continue to ascend, both statewide and on a local level.
“There is progress in several areas and then there’s a lack of progress in some very important areas, like the number of overdose deaths, including in the East Tennessee and Northeast Tennessee areas,” said Dr. David Reagan, the Tennessee Department of Health’s chief medical officer.