Local Health Departments on the Front Lines of the Opioid Epidemic

According to the National Association of County and City Health Officials, local health departments play a critical role in responding to opioid misuse and overdose within their own communities and are well suited to serve as conveners or supporters of coalitions and partnerships.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2018 report, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 47,600 Americans died because of opioid-related overdoses in 2017—far outpacing the mortalities associated with car crashes in 2017 and those of the peak years of the AIDS epidemic. While success has been made in recent years to curb the severity of the epidemic, these recent numbers are a stark reminder of the continued suffering of individuals, families, and communities across the country.

On the “front line” of the epidemic, LHDs are well suited to serve as conveners or supporters of coalitions and partnerships. This is critical, given that collaboration at the local level is essential to address the multifaceted nature of the opioid epidemic. The coordination of federal, state, and local partners, along with the engagement of community agencies and organizations, is imperative in implementing strategies to prevent and respond to opioid misuse and overdose.

Activities located within a local health department are beneficial because opioid use looks different across jurisdictions. To support individuals living with Opiod Use Disorder (OUD), local health departments can help their communities build out treatment options, including medication-assisted treatment, and can improve community linkages to care for OUD treatment, as well as for other physical and mental health services related to opioid use. They are also well-suited to support active drug use communities and to develop and enhance support systems for individuals engaging in treatment.

The opioid epidemic skyrocketed to public consciousness on the back of the immense suffering addiction has inflicted on American communities. There will always be another crisis, and the lessons learned from a variety of domestic drug use epidemics tell us that when we fail to prepare, we fail far too many. Instead of reactionary responses to each new public health emergency, local health departments have a unique opportunity to harness the national conversation around opioids to push for structural improvements in our official response to drug use of all kinds.

Article by Evans, Higgins, and Stanford. Adapted from Journal of Public Health Management & Practice.

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