Updated November 27, 2016 with a more complete count — A final 2015 count from the city of St. Louis bumped the number of opioid overdose deaths to 516 for the St. Louis region, according to Brandon Costerison with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.
The preliminary count put the number at 324. Costerison said he's still waiting for the final count from the Warren County coroner.
Original story — Deaths caused by heroin and other opiates in the St. Louis region have dropped. But with a spike in deaths in 2014, the decline only represents a return to the region’s previously elevated count.
After jumping up to 445 deaths in 2014, the preliminary 2015 count from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse is 324. Except for a spike in 2011, the region’s opiate death toll has hovered in the low-to-mid 300s for the past five years.
“We’ll hopefully know soon if these 2014 numbers are artificially high because it was mixed with something, and 2015 just ends up being on that initial swing, or if it is the beginning of the end of the opiate epidemic in St. Louis,” said Brandon Costerison, a public awareness specialist for NCADA.
According to Costerison, more people died in 2011 because some heroin was mixed with a synthetic opiate called fentanyl.
“Seeing this go back down to 2012-2013 numbers that’s good but that’s still way too many. That’s more people than die from violent crimes. That’s more people than die in vehicle accidents in the St. Louis region,” said Costerison.
According to 2014 data from the FBI, about 248 people were killed in violent crimes in the St. Louis area. And according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, 242 people died in car crashes in Troop C during 2015. Troop C covers most of the St. Louis area.
NCADA gets its yearly regional total by compiling coroner tallies from seven area counties: St. Louis, St. Louis County, St. Charles County, Jefferson County and Franklin County in Missouri and Madison and St. Clair counties in Illinois. St. Charles, Jefferson and Franklin counties are two months behind processing their toxicology reports, so it's likely that 2015's numbers will increase slightly.
And because there is no state or federal standard for coroner records, it’s likely that the actual number of opiate-related deaths will be higher than NCADA’s final count.
Costerison said NCADA only includes deaths that are clearly marked as caused by opiates, either by the individual name of the drug or by classification.
But sometimes the cause of death is listed under more generic groups, even when the likely cause is an opiate. In Madison County, for instance, deaths caused by multiple drugs are classified as prescription medication overdoses.
Record number of heroin deaths in Madison County
Madison County saw a spike of its own in 2015, with 43 suspected heroin deaths. According to County Corner Steve Nonn, the previous record was 26.
“We were already at that many deaths, the most we’d ever had, when we were only halfway through the year,” said Nonn. ““The bright side to that is of these 43 deaths none of them were in the demographic of teens.”
Nonn and other members of the Madison County Drug Task Force have been holding school assemblies about the dangers of heroin for the past two years.
“I think we’re planting the seed at least of making folks smarter that are on the cusp of being young adults and who will come into contact with people who may offer that drug to them,” Nonn said.
Even with Madison County’s dramatic spike in heroin deaths, Nonn said overall opiate-related deaths are down.
“We are definitely down from opiate-based drug overdoses from 2014 to this year. Definitely down,” Nonn said, noting that 15 fewer people died of drug-related causes in 2015.
According to Nonn, most of Madison County’s drug-related deaths are caused by opiates such as prescription painkillers.
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.