MANCHESTER — Mayor Joyce Craig on Friday trumpeted figures that show both opioid overdoses and deaths dropped in 2018 and acknowledged the epidemic’s “heartbreaking tragedy.”
“For the last few years, as you all know, Manchester has been the epicenter of the opioid epidemic here in New Hampshire, and unfortunately many people in this room have stories of heartbreaking tragedy involving family members and friends suffering from opioid addiction,” Craig said at an opioid forum Friday.
“There is still a lot of work to do, and the positive results we saw last year are encouraging, but we know that they are not enough,” Craig told about 150 people gathered at the DoubleTree by Hilton in downtown Manchester.
Manchester saw a 19 percent decrease in opioid overdoses in 2018 and a 22 percent drop in opioid deaths.
“This is the first time that we’ve seen a decrease since this epidemic began,” the mayor said. “It is a disease that ignores age, address and occupation.”
Afterward, Craig said her figures compared 2018 with 2017, and the first-time decrease she cited referred to the number of yearly overdoses, Craig said.
Figures from American Medical Response showed crews responded to 706 overdoses in the city in 2018 compared to 877 in 2017. It was the first yearly drop in years.
The number of suspected fatalities totaled 52 compared to 67 in 2017 and 90 in 2016.
Craig said more people and agencies working on handling the crisis helped reduce the average time it takes someone to get treatment through the fire department’s Safe Station program, where people with substance issues can seek help at city fire stations. Two years ago, the average wait to get into treatment through Safe Station was two to three weeks. Today, it takes an average of two to three days.
Christopher Hickey, emergency medical services officer and paramedic for the Manchester Fire Department, said the reason for the decrease in overdoses “depends upon who you ask or what school of thought you subscribe to.”
Explanations include a reduction of stigma related to opioid use, acceptance of Safe Station as an access point to resources, more public awareness and education of opiate dangers, increased public availability of naloxone (a drug to reverse opioid overdoses) and increased law enforcement activity focused on illicit drug business, he said.
“If it weren’t for all of them coming together and being integrated you wouldn’t see a decline,” Hickey said in an email.
Friday’s forum, hosted by the city and Southern New Hampshire University, brought together city workers, clinicians and hospital workers to learn skills and behaviors they can apply every day to battle addiction.
Danielle Guruge, clinical coordinator at Easterseals in Manchester, said she works with families where some parents lose custody of their children because of substance abuse issues.
“I’m hoping to get some great tools to work with them to get their kids back,” she said.
Pauline Lima, a nurse at the Elliot 1-Day Surgery & Endoscopy Center at Elliot at River’s Edge, said she wanted to hear about what causes addiction.
“We hear people have an injury, take a prescription with a narcotic and end up with a problem,” Lima said. “How does that happen and how do we prevent it?”
According to state figures, the state last year saw fewer drug overdose deaths, which goes beyond just opioids. They numbered 488 in 2017 and 485 in 2016. Figures for 2018 were incomplete with 364 drug overdoses and 77 other cases pending toxicology results, according to a February report. But even if all were ruled overdose deaths, they would total 441 for 2018.
There also were more than 1,000 fewer emergency department visits tied to opioid use — 5,539, down more than 17 percent from 6,684 in 2017.