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Heroin and Opioid overdoses are down in PA, but not for Blacks and Latinos.
Heroin and Opioid overdoses are down in PA, but not for Blacks and Latinos. Photo: AL DÍA Archives.

Overdose Hospitalizations down across PA, but not for the Black and Latino communities

A new analysis reveals the racial divide of overdose hospitalizations in the state.

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Despite a report released Thursday, Oct. 6 by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council that said that hospitalizations for opioid overdoses in Pennsylvania decreased 27% over the past six years, that was not true for Black and Latino Pennsylvanians. 

In the report published by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council (PHC4), the statewide opioid overdose hospitalization rate was 22.9 per 100,000 residents in 2021 compared to 31.6 per 100,000 residents in 2016. 

But while Pennsylvania has seen less people hospitalized for heroin and opioid overdoses, the racial disparities are considerable also according to the research. Black and Latino individuals in the Commonwealth are being hospitalized more for heroin and opioid overdoses than their white counterparts

The increases in hospitalization for the Black and Latino communities also go in line with a rise in overdose death rates in those same communities, pointing to a bigger and growing problem of racial disparity in the state’s opioid crisis.

Analysis of data that was collected from medical diagnostic codes during hospital admissions by the PA Health Care Cost Containment Council (PHC4) found that the age group most likely to be hospitalized for opioid overdoses in 2021 were between the ages of 25 and 44. The next highest group were those aged between 45 and 64.

Additionally, Black and Latino people were hospitalized for opioid overdoses at a rate of 37.8 and 30 per 100,000 residents. In stark comparison, white residents were hospitalized at a rate of 19.2 per 100,000. The findings also revealed that those who lived in an area where more than 25% of the population lived in poverty, were also more likely to be hospitalized. 

“The findings in this new report shed light on the status of Pennsylvania’s opioid epidemic over several years and emphasize the decrease in hospitalizations for opioid overdose since 2016,” said Barry Buckingham, PCH4’s executive director. “While these results show decreases in the inpatient treatment of opioid overdoses in Pennsylvania, care provided in other settings such as emergency departments or by first responders may show different patterns.”

The catch, it might actually be worse

According to Jeanmarie Perrone, an emergency medicine physician at the University of Pennsylvania and the school’s director of the Division of Medical Toxicology and Addiction Medicine Initiatives, who spoke to the Philadelphia Inquirer, one of the problems is that the organization’s data do not present the entire reality of hospitalizations for overdoses in Pennsylvania. 

For instance, the report does not take into account emergency room visits for opioid overdoses, but instead only shows people admitted to the hospital for more serious complications that usually occur after one overdose. 

Additionally, hospital admissions for fentanyl overdoses were not organized into its own category in the organization's hospital admission findings until the last quarter of 2020. The agency said that those who were hospitalized for a fentanyl overdose between 2016 and early 2020 were categorized under that for a painkiller overdose as opposed to fentanyl overdoses. 

2021 is the first year in which fentanyl overdose hospitalization admissions data is available. Findings include that about 18% of all opioid overdose hospitalizations involved fentanyl, a drug that is being mixed with other drugs such as cocaine, and pills like Xanax. Those hospitalizations for an overdose in which the patient died, 34% were a result of fentanyl. 

According to Perrone, in Philly, many people who survive an opioid overdose are revived by friends, or bystanders and don’t go to the hospital, which skews the data a bit. The number of overdose victims that are admitted for a hospital stay from the E.R. is small in comparison to the total number of overdoses she treats. 

“Many opioid overdoses don’t get admitted, or even get transported to the hospital much of the time,” Perrone said. “It doesn’t really reflect what’s happening in the trenches.”

It’s also a question of outreach, as Jen Smith, Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, told the Inquirer. With fentanyl now in the mix, outreach must be better to Black and Latino communities across the state to educate, less more people fall victim to the overdoses caused by it.

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