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To battle opioid crisis, some track overdoses in real time

Assoicated Press

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By Michael Hille
Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) Drug overdose patients rushed to some emergency rooms in New York’s Hudson Valley are asked a series of questions: Do you have stable housing? Do you have food? Times and location of overdoses are noted, too.

The information is entered into a new overdose-tracking system that provides near real-time glimpses into the ravages of the opioid-fueled drug crisis. The Hudson Valley Interlink Analytic System is among a number of surveillance systems being adopted around the country by police, government agencies and community groups. While the number of drug overdose deaths appears to have fallen nationally in 2018 for the first time in nearly three decades, the overdose death rate remains about seven times higher than a generation ago.

If there’s a spike in overdoses, the system will send text alerts to health administrators and community workers. And system users can see what drugs are being abused for faster and focused responses to the ever-evolving problem.

“We can’t get ahead of a situation that’s already passed. This kind of information has to be given almost instantaneously or else the narcotics that we’re trying to track have already been sold, and they’re already on to the next batch,” said Sgt. Julio Fernandez of the New York National Guard’s Counterdrug Task Force, which helped usher in the system.

The Hudson Valley system was adopted earlier this year by two hospitals north of New York City serving areas hard-hit by drug abuse: St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital in Newburgh and Ellenville Regional Hospital. Administrators say nearby Catskill Regional Medical Center is ready to enter information and that Orange Regional Medical Center in Middletown will begin data entry next month. Administrators are talking to other hospitals in the region about signing up.

When a patient comes in, a nurse or another worker enters data about the overdose and the drug. Patients retain their legally required anonymity, but system users can still glean general information about the age, gender and housing status of people in trouble.

Participation by patients is voluntary. If someone is unresponsive or unwilling to answer questions, workers enter the data that’s available. Kathy Sheehan, director of emergency and trauma services at St. Luke’s, said many patients cooperate, though there are just as many others who are not willing to speak.

“They’re private,” she said, “they’re maybe afraid of the repercussions.”

Around the country, workers on the front lines of the opioid crisis are looking to speedier data access as part of their prevention strategy.

The most ubiquitous surveillance system is the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program, or ODMAP. The system allows first responders and others to enter data on suspected overdoses, including locations, times, naloxone dosages, victim ages and suspected drugs. The system designed by the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program in the Washington/Baltimore area sends out spike alerts to police and other agencies. Launched as a pilot in January 2017, it is now in 48 states.

Officials in Oneida County using ODMAP in upstate New York last month were able to marshal forces after receiving a spike alert notification for 21 overdose reports and four fatalities suspected to be associated with heroin within 15 days.

The Hudson Valley system gathers much of the same data as ODMAP, though Wilkin said it also collects information on patients’ housing and transportation status to give system users additional insights into the social conditions of people fighting addictions.

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