COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — The numbers are sobering and still climbing.
For the first time ever, opioid overdoses could kill more Missourians in a year than car accidents.
The Columbia Daily Tribune reports that the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services has recorded 733 opioid overdose deaths through Aug. 31, compared to 591 traffic deaths recorded by the Missouri State Highway Patrol.
For all of last year, the state had 908 opioid overdose deaths and 947 traffic fatalities.
“I am not shocked one little bit. Not at all,” said Patti Fitzwalter, who lost her own son, Michael, to a heroin overdose in 2014. “Until it happened to us -- to our family, to our son -- we basically had our heads in the sand. We didn’t know it was a problem like it is.”
The Fitzwalters turned their quiet struggle into advocacy. Following their son’s death, they started walking with other families who lost children to heroin – even starting a Walking for Wellness chapter in north St. Louis County. They were behind efforts to establish a regional prescription drug monitoring database in St. Louis County, have called for more federal funding for treatment centers, and have even spoken to students about drug awareness.
“The more we reach out to people, hopefully we can prevent some other family from living the nightmare,” said Ellis Fitzwalter, Michaels father.
Opioid overdose deaths have become so alarming that President Donald Trump declared a public health emergency. In Missouri, nine summits are taking place across the state to help first responders and others deal with the epidemic.
The St. Louis area is particularly hard-hit. So far this year, 175 deaths have been recorded in St. Louis County and 125 in St. Louis city, 53 in Jefferson County and 46 in St. Charles County.
Other counties with high numbers of deaths include Jackson County with 58 and Greene County with 46.
"In St. Louis we have people dying of fentanyl. In rural Missouri, especially in southeast Missouri, it is the number of prescriptions being filled and the misuse and abuse of oral narcotics," Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services Director Randall Williams said.
Since Jan. 1, 2016, Boone County Medical Examiner Chris Stacy said he has handled 43 intoxication-related deaths of all kinds, compared to 25 motor vehicle collision deaths.
The numbers could be worse. The Columbia Fire Department has responded to 309 overdose calls this year — an average of one each day. The department has administered the anti-overdose drug naloxone 17 times. The University of Missouri Hospital emergency room has administered it 38 times.
In one recent case, fire Lt. Michael Holz said a young man didn't have time to put the needle away before he was dead.
"The needle wasn't in his arm, it had obviously fallen out, but it killed him instantly," Holz said.
Information from: Columbia Daily Tribune, http://www.columbiatribune.com