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In Recovery: Opioids, Pain and Hope in California’s San Joaquin Valley

In Recovery: Opioids, Pain and Hope in California’s San Joaquin Valley

From a national perspective, California may appear to have missed the worst of the opioid crisis. Californians are dying of overdoses at a slower rate than the national average, and at just a tenth the rate of drug-ravaged West Virginia.

But don’t be fooled: Opioids are still killing Californians by the thousands each year, and Kern County in particular is faring worse than the state as a whole. From 2016 to 2017, the county reported a nearly 40 percent rise in deaths from overdoses.

Fatal overdoses are not the only indicator of the opioid problem. According to data from the state Department of Public Health and the non-profit Urban Institute, per population, the whole southern San Joaquin Valley reports higher-than-average rates of opioid prescribing and abuse. Two of the three zip codes with the highest prescription rates in the state are located in the Valley. Overdoses are sending Kern County residents to hospitals and emergency departments at a faster rate than almost anywhere else in the San Joaquin Valley.

This rural, majority-Medi-Cal-eligible region of the state also suffers a disproportionate lack of access to critical treatment. Fresno contains the only needle exchange program in the Central Valley between Sacramento and Los Angeles, leaving Bakersfield as California’s biggest city not served by a needle exchange somewhere within its surrounding county. Simultaneously, the San Joaquin Valley contains far fewer prescribers than the state average who are waivered to provide medically assisted treatment to opioid users.

Who is using opioids in this area? Why? And how can they be better served? We'll address those questions and more with this series throughout 2019.

This project was supported by a 2018 California Data Fellowship from the University of Southern California’s Center For Health Journalism.