SAN RAFAEL (CBS SF) – Drug overdose deaths in Marin County fell between 2013 and 2018 because doctors and clinicians were writing fewer prescriptions for opioid painkillers, county public health officials said Wednesday.

There were 39 overdose deaths, mostly from prescription opioids, in 2013 and 28 in 2018, Marin County public health officials said. Opioid prescribing in the county has also decreased 48 percent since 2014.

“We’re approaching pain differently,” Dr. Mitesh Popat, head of Marin County Clinics, said in a news release about the reduced drug overdose deaths.

“We’ve found that most people with chronic pain do better in the long run without opioids. Being part of a countywide response has helped the whole medical community set a new bar,” Popat said.

In 2014, the Marin County Department of Health and Human Services, health care providers, law enforcement agencies and community members formed RxSafe Marin, a coalition dedicated to reducing harm from prescription drug abuse and saving lives.

RxSafe Marin created safe opioid prescribing guidelines in collaboration with local hospitals and the San Francisco Marin Medical Society, and began intensive community education about the potential harm of opioids.

By reducing the number of prescriptions and increasing the amount of safely disposed medications, the county saw fewer opioids in the community.

Marin County Public Health Officer Dr. Matt Willis said Wednesday the safe opioid prescribing guidelines are tailored to the needs of those at risk of overdose.

Previously, there was a simplistic approach to pain management, and drug manufacturers said opioids were safe and non-addictive but in fact they were less effective, Willis said.

RxSafe Marin, however, did see an alarming trend in fentanyl use a potent illegal synthetic opioid that is the leading cause of overdose death nationally. Of the 28 overdoses in Marin County in 2018, five were fentanyl-related. There were only five fentanyl deaths over the five previous years.

In response to the numbers of illicit or non-prescription opioid overdoses, RxSafe Marin is shifting its focus to provide support and treatment for people struggling with addiction. Opioid addiction is treatable with medications and counseling support.

Marin County Public Health and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Behavioral Health and Recovery Services also are using 911 records to identify overdose events and connect survivors with substance abuse treatment.

Since July 2018, the number of patients connected to treatment within one week of a non-fatal overdose has increased from 9 to 21 percent.

“People can be more open to getting help for addiction after a near miss event,” said Kim Bowman, Marin County Emergency Medical Services Director.

RxSafe Marin also is promoting the availability and use of Narcan, which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose almost immediately.

In July, 84 local pharmacists were trained on the importance of furnishing Narcan, and the drug is now available at pharmacies without a prescription.

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