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Opioid deaths rose 50 percent during the pandemic. In these places, they fell

Spotlight on the HEALing Communities Study


A recent Politico article highlights promising strategies from the HEALing Communities Study that reduced opioid fatalities despite facing pandemic-related challenges. 


According to author Ruth Reader, “Fatal drug overdoses in the U.S., driven by the synthetic opioid fentanyl, increased by more than half during the pandemic and remain near record levels. But in Lucas County, where Toledo is, they plummeted 20 percent between 2020 and 2022.”


HEALing Communities Study (HCS) leaders shared that the approach could be a template for the country. The science and evidence behind the HEALing Communities framework was published in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence and outlines 19 essential evidence-based interventions to reduce opioid overdose deaths.


The article highlighted the HCS approach in Toledo, Ohio, where “federal funds paid for iPads to help collect and share data and offer videos to train people to use the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone. It bought a mobile van for educational outreach and naloxone distribution. And it came with access to a staff who coordinated and analyzed data, designed interventions and helped with marketing.”


In New York’s rural Cayuga County, the program “brought overdoses down 40 percent between 2021 and 2023. And after hitting a peak in 2020, deaths fell from 23 to seven in the following three years.”


Despite unprecedented disruptions from the pandemic, HCS interventions contributed to a 9% reduction in overdose deaths overall, with 483 deaths avoided in the intervention group compared to the control. Larger reductions were shown in several communities, such as in Cayuga County, New York (40% reduction), Lucas County, Ohio (20% reduction), and Sullivan County, New York (22% reduction).


The HEALing Communities Study is a multi-site research study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that tested the integration of effective interventions and policies in select communities hard hit by the opioid crisis. The comprehensive study involved 67 communities across four states (New York, Ohio, Kentucky, and Massachusetts) and used a cluster-randomized design to assess the impact of various evidence-based strategies to reduce opioid overdose deaths and provide replicable models for other jurisdictions. 


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