Bonneville County’s drug death rates rival nation’s worst

This Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York. Abuse of painkillers, heroin, fentanyl and other opioids across the country has resulted in tens of thousands of children being taken from their homes and placed in the foster care system. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison)

For the past few years drug overdose death rates in Bonneville and Bannock counties have been among the highest in Idaho, and the latest numbers show them to still be well above the state average.

Idaho’s overall overdose death rate has generally trended close to or a bit below the national average in recent years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new nationwide numbers for 2016 a week ago that put Idaho, with 243 overdose deaths last year, at 15.2 per 100,000 people, or 36th out of the 50 states plus Washington, D.C., and below the national rate of 19.8 deaths per 100,000.

However, the overdose death rate in Bonneville County in 2016 was 24 per 100,000 residents, and in Bannock County it was 26 per 100,000, according to a New York Times analysis of the data. According to the state Department of Health and Welfare the overdose death rates in public health districts 6 and 7, which cover southeastern and eastern Idaho respectively, were 25 and 18.4 per 100,000 residents in 2016, a 9-point jump in District 6 and a 5-point drop in District 7 from 2015.

For comparison, Indiana also had an overdose death rate of 24 per 100,000 residents in 2016, and that state came in at 16th-highest in the nation, behind the mostly Northeastern and Appalachian states that have been hit the hardest by the opioid epidemic. 

The CDC’s 2016 numbers did show slightly higher rates in Boise, Butte and Shoshone counties than in Bonneville, but these counties also have small enough populations that small changes can make a big difference in the rates, making the calculations less reliable.

According to data compiled by the state Department of Health and Welfare, there were 723 drug-induced deaths in Idaho from 2014 through 2016, an age-adjusted rate of 15.3 per 100,000 people. A large majority of such deaths are accidental overdoses, although some are drug deaths that are ruled suicide or cases where the deceased’s intent is unknown.

The state calculated rates per 100,000 for the six counties that have 20 or more overdose deaths in those three years, and out of them Bonneville County had the highest rate per capita from 2014 through 2016 according to the Department of Health and Welfare data — 88 people died of drug overdoses in those three years, which works out to 29.6 deaths per 100,000 residents.

“We do get a lot of calls for overdoses … whether accidental or intentional, we do get quite a lot of those calls in the county,” said Bonneville County Sheriff’s Sgt. Brian Lovell.

Bonneville County Sheriff’s deputies started to carry Narcan, a nasal spray that blocks the effects of opioids and can save someone who is overdosing, about a year ago, and recently received a large amount of it through a grant from the state’s Office of Drug Policy.

Lovell said marijuana, meth and prescription drug abuse are all common in Bonneville County, but that those have also been common for some time. Heroin, however, has been getting noticeably more common over the past few years.

“I think for some reason it’s become more available,” he said. “I think in some instances you get a chunk of that drug-abusing population that are seeking new and different ways to either get a better high or a cheaper high.”

Health-care providers nationwide have generally been getting more aware of opioid abuse and haven’t been prescribing opiate painkillers as freely as they did in the past. Lovell said that as pills become harder to get, more people turn to heroin.

“The heroin started coming into the area and somehow it’s become easier to get (than) the prescription drugs,” he said. “Once they’re hooked on that, they’re stuck in that realm and it’s difficult to break free from.”

Dealing with drug abuse, Lovell said, eats up resources that law enforcement and emergency services could be using elsewhere. But he views combating the problem as worth it to keep drugs out of the hands of children and try to reduce the overall cost to society.

“It’s a constant battle, and as soon as we curb one method or one area, another pops up to sort of take its place,” he said. “We do have some big successes, and a lot of that starts from small successes as far as drug investigations.”

Out of the state’s six biggest counties, Bannock County had the second-highest overdose death rate from 2014 to 2016 according to the state’s numbers — 64 people, working out to 27.3 deaths per 100,000. None of the others came close to the rates seen in Bonneville and Bannock counties. The rate in Twin Falls County during those three years was 17.9 overdose deaths per 100,000. Ada County, which has the most people, had the highest number of deaths at 186, but this works out to 14.2 per 100,000 residents, according to the state’s data.

The pattern holds if you look a bit further back. In the period from 2011 through 2015, 134 people died of drug overdoses in Bonneville County, a rate of 28.2 deaths per 100,000 residents, the highest in the state and a little more than double the statewide rate. Bannock County had the second-highest overdose death rate out of the big counties, at 25.3 per 100,000 residents, or 99 people in those five years.

The city of Idaho Falls saw 113 drug-induced deaths from 2011 to 2015 — second to Boise, which had 196, but Idaho Falls had 60,211 residents in 2016 compared to 223,154 in Boise, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Pocatello and Nampa had 72 and 64 drug-induced deaths in those five years and had estimated 2016 populations of 54,746 and 91,382, respectively.

According to the CDC, more than 63,600 people died of drug overdoses in the United States in 2016, a steep jump from about 52,400 in 2015. Rising opioid use is behind much of it, and has greatly pushed up the number of overdose deaths over time according to state Health and Welfare’s numbers about three times as many Idahoans died of drug overdoses in 2015 than in 2000 after adjusting for population, and the CDC’s report similarly shows that overdose deaths nationally a little more than tripled from 1999 to 2016. 

The data on what types of drugs are involved in overdoses in Idaho isn’t always straightforward — a majority of such deaths involve more than one drug, and sometimes the type of drug isn’t recorded on the death certificate — but the data is clear that opiates are involved more often than any other single category and that opioid deaths have generally been increasing.

Out of the 309 cases where a drug was recorded on a drug certificate in 2016 — the number is higher than the 261 deaths due to deaths involving more than one drug — 136 involved opiates. “Psychostimulants with abuse potential,” the category which includes meth, came in second at 51 instances, which is less than the 59 deaths from just “natural and semisynthetic opioids,” the category that includes painkillers such as hydrocodone and oxycodone. Overall opioid deaths increased from about 100 in 2015 to 136 in 2016, while deaths involving meth went from 40 to 44. Heroin deaths went from 17 in 2015 to 26 in 2016.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757.