Coroner seeks changes as drug-related deaths surge

Meg Farris talks to the parish coroner about the high number of drug-related deaths,

NEW ORLEANS -- The coroner is calling for a different way of handling people who use drugs, as the number of deaths skyrocket.

"The numbers don't lie, and the numbers are that New Orleans is in the midst of an accelerating public health crisis," said Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, Orleans Parish Coroner. 

Drug use and deaths are part of a public health crisis that touches every corner of the community, and it's one that our team of reporters has been following for more than a year.

ALSO: The New Face of Heroin: An Investigative Series in Four Parts

For the last year, EMS workers in the field, doctors on the front lines at UMC, as well as the police, have been sounding the alarm that addiction and deadly drug use in this area was on the rise. Now the gruesome facts back them up.

Dr. Rouse said, "This is likely the first time that drug-related deaths have surpassed homicides in the history of New Orleans."

Compared to 2015, accidental, drug-related deaths more than doubled in 2016. Deaths went from from 92 to 211. Many of the dead had multiple drugs in their systems.

With opiates, such as heroin, deaths have doubled, and in that group, there was a more than three-fold increase in the frequency of fentanyl. That's a powerful and dangerous synthetic opioid. Also way up, the people with cocaine in their systems, a well as methamphetamines.

While deaths were seen across demographic groups, 80 percent were males, and African-American deaths jumped the most, from 28 percent to 45 percent.

The coroner wants a change.

"I'm calling upon those who control the purse strings and control the way the government works to do two things. Number one: to expand access to treatment so there can be an off ramp, so to speak, before people drive and end up in my office. Secondarily, with regard to the criminal justice system, the most important thing that can be done in that realm is to expand access and expand funding to diversion programs such as drug courts. That get persons out of the criminal justice system into the treatment system that they deserve to be in," said Dr. Rouse.

Keep in mind the increase is even though many lives are now saved with EMS and family and friends quickly using the nasal spray Narcan to get someone who has over dosed to breath again.

He also says there is not enough treatment in the area. There are long lines to get into treatment, so some people die before they get help. And he says there needs to be a cultural change where the community recognizes addiction is an illness of the brain.

© 2017 WWL-TV


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