The number of opioid-related deaths in New Jersey is on pace to reach or exceed 3,000 by the end of the year, which would represent an increase of a third over 2016, despite efforts by health, treatment and law-enforcement officials to battle the epidemic.

A significant decline in opioid prescriptions has so far not stopped the accelerating number of deaths due to heroin, fentanyl and other opioids, the latest data from the state Attorney General’s NJCares website shows. Through June 17, 1,394 New Jerseyans had died of opioid overdoses, compared with 2,221 for all of 2016. Data for 2017 are not yet available. Angelo Valente, executive director of the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey, said that the rising abuse of fentanyl, a pain reliever that is also made synthetically, has contributed to the increase in deaths. Many experts agree fentanyl — which is many times stronger then heroin and is sometimes mixed in with other opioids without the users’ knowledge — is a major factor in the increase in overdose deaths.

“The fact is that in many of these cases, fentanyl plays a major role,” he said. “That’s something we did not have in previous years.”

“Overall, I would say I’m pretty concerned about the current state of the opioid problem in New Jersey,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal. So the state is retooling its efforts to tackle this public health problem, “focusing on a much more comprehensive approach” to meet the challenge at every opportunity — from a person’s initial contact with an opioid through treatment and the criminal justice system.

Elnahal disdains Christie approach

The prior administration focused more on outreach and awareness, Elnahal said, and “unfortunately most of the resources went to things like television ads and did not get to the front lines.” Former Gov. Chris Christie issued an executive order in January 2017 declaring opioid abuse and addiction “a public health crisis” and creating a task force to develop and execute a comprehensive strategy to combat the epidemic.

Elnahal said the $100 million Gov. Phil Murphy is seeking to spend would fund “a more holistic approach” that would involve multiple state departments working together on the problem and that they have put together a roadmap for tackling opioids.

One positive sign is that the number of prescriptions issued for opioids continues to decline. State data show that almost 2 million prescriptions had been written in New Jersey through June 12, which is on a pace to be about 9 percent fewer than last year and 21 percent below the 5.6 million written in 2015. Last year, Christie enacted a new limit on initial opioid prescriptions to a supply of five days and a requirement that doctors must tell parents about the addictive risks of opioids when prescribing to minors. Elnahal called the drop in prescriptions “really promising.”

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