The Jefferson County Coroner is highly concerned about drug overdose, and he says while there is a homicide issue in the county, drug overdoses are much more common. He warns the impact is more far-reaching.
Coroner Bill Yates recently decided to start making the number of drug overdoses visible daily. In a media email, the Jefferson County Coroner/Medical Examiner's Office sends the statistics each weekday. The numbers continue to increase, and Yates said he wants the public to be aware.
"From my seat, when looking at who is dying in Jefferson County and why it is the biggest problem," Yates told 1819 News. "It's more of a problem than homicide. The reason I say it's more of a problem than homicide is that I think the overdoses touch more people actually, and it's more of a burden in our community, I believe."
After 13 years with the office, Yates said he had seen a definite change in operations. In fact, he said the Jefferson County Commission hired a new doctor for the office in 2017. It just approved more funds to support an additional forensic pathologist to help relieve the caseload and ensure the Medical Examiner's office can keep accreditation.
"Drug overdoses were just a part of the work we did when I started here," said Yates. "It was fairly equaled out with other types of traumatic death, but it was just one of the types of deaths we investigated until 2014. Now it's just what we do."
The Jefferson County Health Department has used the Overdose Data to Action state grant to try and fight the crisis. However, despite the efforts, the death numbers continue to rise. Those efforts include gathering metrics and analyzing patterns, education, literature, social work with drug users, resources such as naloxone and testing strips, and training for first responders.
"Our numbers keep going up even though the good work they're doing is getting the message out there, getting naloxone into the hands of first responders," Yates added. "Law enforcement officers are reviving people left and right.
"A lot of times, law enforcement can get there before the fire department or ambulance can, so they're meeting with all of these academies and law enforcement departments and getting these resources into the hands of officers and in their vehicles."
The impact on first responders has been felt across the state. In Jefferson County, the coroner believes the health department's efforts are working and wants first responders to know they are appreciated.
"The EMS runs are going up, the emergency visits are going up, the death numbers are going up," Yates added. "But I tell them, 'Y'all can't be too down on yourselves. Can you imagine if we weren't doing all this?'"
Yates added that the impact doesn't stop with first responders. He said as more cases have to be sent to state labs, the burden increases there.
Since 2014, the coroner's office has identified a shift in the cause of deaths in Jefferson County. Of all non-natural deaths, including car accidents and homicides, overdoses have exceeded the others for the past several years.
"Back in 2014, it would go back and forth with gun deaths or overdoses being the highest," said Yates. "Most of the time, it was gun deaths. But now, for the third consecutive year, it's overdoses. And last year will break that record again."
Yates said officials are considering a campaign similar to a visual campaign the city of Birmingham used to do when there were traffic deaths. The Vulcan statue had a light on top that the city would turn on every time someone was killed in a car accident. Yates said he feels like a similar visual campaign could help raise awareness of overdose deaths and the opioid crisis.
Based on the numbers, if Jefferson County did establish such a campaign, the light would be on constantly. In 2022, there were 418 confirmed overdoses. In addition, 27 deaths in 2022 were suspected overdoses. This year, there have been 56 suspected drug overdose deaths and one confirmed. In the past 24 hours, there have been three suspected overdose deaths.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall wrote in an opinion piece for Fox News that the fentanyl crisis is being fueled by "the uninhibited flow of Chinese-made chemicals to Mexican drug cartels, and then the unchallenged smuggling of Mexican-made fentanyl across the American border—all of which is being allowed with little interest or action taken by Biden and his administration."
Both Marshall and Yates also pointed out that opioid addiction impacts all demographics in the United States.
"Opioid addiction and overdoses are not "a 'white' thing," as some have described it," Marshall continued. "Indeed, in recent years, the rate of overdose deaths among Native Americans has been the highest of all racial groups in Montana, and the increase in overdose deaths among African Americans has been the highest of all racial groups in Alabama. Far from such circumstances being unique to our states, they represent trends observed nationwide."
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Yates said there had been a demographic shift in Jefferson County over the past several years. He said for a long time, drug fatalities were majority white males between 40 – 49 years of age. Since 2019, he said he had seen the deaths of males and females in the black community dramatically increase.
"Black males have now surpassed white males for the highest demographic for overdose deaths in Jefferson County," Yates said. "White males were always by far the peak for years... That's big, and that is one indicator for the bigger problem, which is for the past three years, the black community has seen a significant increase in opioid overdoses."
Experts believe the use of fentanyl is often unknown to the person taking the drug. They say fentanyl is being mixed in all illicit street drugs, so people don't know what they're taking until it's too late. Yates said there is typically a root cause of drug use, and he believes communities should pour more resources into prevention by focusing on mental health and helping people cope with past trauma.
The Jefferson County Coroner/Medical Examiner's Office has an interactive statistical data report online.
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