State Officials Review Opioid-related Deaths in Utah

(Salt Lake City, UT) – In response to the growing opioid epidemic, the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) established an Opioid Fatality Review Committee (OFRC) to conduct in-depth reviews on select opioid deaths in the state. Findings from the OFRC were released today.

“Thorough review of opioid-related deaths informs prevention efforts statewide. The purpose of a fatality review is to gather accurate data about events leading up to and surrounding an opioid-related death and make recommendations to prevent future fatalities,” said Joey Thurgood, opioid fatality review coordinator with the UDOH.

Since its implementation in January of 2018, the OFRC has reviewed 58 opioid overdose deaths, generating more than 50 prevention recommendations. The findings and recommendations are summarized in three reports for specific at-risk populations. Key findings include:

Individuals Using Gabapentin

  • Gabapentin is an anticonvulsant medication used to treat seizures and nerve pain.
  • Gabapentin prescriptions increased dramatically from 39 million prescriptions in 2012 to 64 million prescriptions in 2016, making it the 10th most prescribed medication in the U.S.
  • In 2016, 35 Utahns died from an overdose where both gabapentin and a prescription opioid were present.
  • Females accounted for 64% of the overdose deaths involving gabapentin and a prescription opioid between 2014 and 2016 in Utah.

Geographic Areas with High Opioid Overdose Rates

  • “Hot spots” are geographic locations in Utah with significantly higher rates of opioid overdose deaths when compared with other Utah Small Areas. These small areas are determined by population size, political boundaries, and economic similarity.
  • In 2016, Carbon/Emery County had an opioid overdose death rate (47.7 per 100,000) nearly three times higher than the state rate (17.4 per 100,000). The majority of these deaths were from prescription opioids (94%) followed by heroin (6%).
  • Downtown Ogden is another major hot spot in Utah, with an opioid overdose death rate of 39.1 per 100,000. While the majority of opioid overdose deaths resulted from prescription opioids (58%) the area differs from Carbon/Emery in that heroin rates were much higher (32%).

Individuals Recently Released from an Institution

  • Individuals who have an opioid use disorder and were recently released from an institution such as a correctional facility or medical/mental healthcare facility have likely experienced a period of abstinence from opioids. This puts them at a higher risk of overdosing if they use an opioid after their release because their body’s tolerance to the drug has been lowered.
  • Prescription opioids were most commonly involved in overdose fatalities among decedents who were released from a hospital, while illicit substances were most commonly involved in deaths among individuals who were released from jail or prison.

Many partners participate on the OFRC and provide additional information about the deaths, identify risk factors, and develop recommendations beneficial to Utahns statewide. These partners include the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner, Utah Department of Corrections, Attorney General’s Office, Utah Department of Commerce, Utah Department of Human Services, University of Utah Medical Center, and Utah Poison Control Center (UPCC).

“We proudly support the OFRC and our partners statewide,” stated Mark Steinagel, division director with the Utah Department of Commerce Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing. “Throughout the past year, the coordinated efforts of the OFRC have increased communication to examine how opioid related deaths might be prevented in the future. Our team pledges to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow agencies to work hard on this issue until opioid addiction is no longer a threat to Utahns’ lives.”

“The Utah Poison Control Center is pleased to be a member of the OFRC. We provide data that helps inform the committee in their work to identify strategies to prevent future overdose deaths,” said Barbara Crouch, UPCC director.

The Utah Coalition for Opioid Overdose Prevention (UCO-OP) prioritizes and adopts recommendations from the OFRC reviews.

“The UCO-OP is a multidisciplinary group whose purpose is to guide, recommend, and support the opioid overdose prevention and intervention efforts in Utah.” Dr. Angela Dunn, UDOH state epidemiologist and UCO-OP executive committee vice-chair. “The findings presented by the OFRC show a continued need to educate physicians and prescribers on the dangers of opioids, provide adequate and evidence-based substance use disorder treatment for individuals at high risk of overdosing, and ensure naloxone is available in all Utah communities.”

For copies of the OFRC reports, visit

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Media Contacts:
Katie McMinn, UDOH
(m) 385-272-6306
Jennifer Bolton, Commerce
(m) 801-652-8322
Barbara Crouch, UPCC
(m) 801-587-0600