Closure and clarity: A push for detailed drug death certificates
TRENTON — Death certificates would have to list the drug responsible for overdose deaths in New Jersey, under a proposed bill in the state Legislature.
Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the change can provide answers and closure to “so many families who are dealing with the worst impacts of the overdose crisis.”
“For me, as a funeral director by profession, I have certainly seen the devastating impact of the overdose crisis in our communities,” Vainieri Huttle said. “And I have sat with families, quite frankly, when the death certificates arrive and it says ‘pending.’ And there’s not a specific cause of death. With that and the loss of their loved ones, they need and they’re looking for closure.”
Beyond answers for individual families, Vainieri Huttle said the change could help the state better understand the full scope of overdose deaths, which have been averaging more than 3,000 a year in New Jersey.
“It will provide us with critical data to identify patterns and hopefully take action to save and prevent additional overdoses, which is one of the leading causes of death unfortunately in the state and in the nation,” she said.
“Those death certificates are used for … important epidemiologic purposes and should, if utilized correctly, help to direct government and other resources to tackling causes of death identified in those certificates,” said Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington, chair of the Assembly Health Committee.
The bill requires that, if the information is available, the name of the drug responsible for a drug overdose death must be listed on a death certificate or recorded in the New Jersey Electronic Death Registration System.
“It is an important measure, obviously,” Conaway said. “We are still dealing with an opioid crisis, accidental death particularly heightened as we’re in a pandemic and social isolation is on the rise.”
“Social isolation is leading to either a relapse of people that suffer from addiction or people, I suppose, starting with addictions because of the stress and the dislocation caused by the pandemic and social isolation in particular caused by the pandemic,” he said.
The number of overdose deaths in New Jersey spiked in the spring as the pandemic began and partial lockdowns were imposed. Between March and May, 803 people died in suspected overdoses, up 19% from the previous spring.
The increase began before the pandemic, however. In the four months from November 2019 through last February, the number of overdose deaths was up 17%.
Overdose deaths have recently been declining compared to the same period a year ago, after state officials adopted a number of changes to make it easier for people to access addiction help during the pandemic, such as expanded use of telehealth.
Overdose deaths were down year-over-year in each of the five months between July and November, by a combined 15%. Deaths since the pandemic began in March have now declined from the same period a year earlier, and it is likely the final number of overdose deaths this year won’t break the 2018 record.