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Orange County's wealthiest cities have biggest opioid problem

File photo: A new report from the Orange County Health Care Agency found that the vast majority of opioid-related overdose deaths in the county were accidental. The county is working to increase the availability of Naloxone, a nasal spray that can counteract an overdose.

Opioid abuse and overdoses have caused emergency room visits in Orange County to more than double over the last decade, according to a recent report from the county health care agency. 

The cities with the highest rates of opioid-related emergency room visits are in generally wealthy south Orange County and along the coast, with Dana Point at the top of the list.  

Opioid-related emergency room visits in Orange County

Top 12 cities Ave. annual visits per 100,000 residents (2011 - 2015)
Dana Point 120
Costa Mesa 99
San Clemente 92
Laguna Beach 90
Laguna Woods 88
Laguna Niguel 74
Huntington Beach 73
San Juan Capistrano 73
Laguna Hills 65
Mission Viejo 56
Fountain Valley 56
Newport Beach 51

Source: Orange County Health Care Agency.

“More affluent communities have, maybe, more free time, more access to prescription medications,” report author Curtis Condon said in an interview. 

Overdoses linked to prescription opioids, like Vicodin, Oxycontin and morphine, seem to be more concentrated in those affluent parts of the county and among older people, he said. Meanwhile, heroin overdoses are more common in central and north Orange County, as well as among younger people. 

Orange County's percentage of emergency room visits due to heroin overdoses was only slightly higher than the percentage due to prescription opioid overdoses, according to the report. 

Most of the patients were white males. The highest rate of emergency room visits by far was among 18- to 24-year-olds. 

Still, older people aged 45 to 64 are dying of opioid overdoses at the highest rates in Orange County. Older people are prescribed more opiates than their younger peers, Condon said.

“You know, aches and pains. Or if you have surgery, a lot of times you’ll be prescribed a lot of opioids," Condon said.

Orange County's opioid-related death rate is much higher than the state average — and nearly three times higher than neighboring Los Angeles County, according to the California Department of Public Health's Opioid Overdose Surveillance Dashboard.

Still, the rate of deaths in OC caused by opiates is a fraction of that seen in the California counties with the worst problem, including Plumas, Lake and Tuolumne counties. California ranks low nationwide for opioid abuse.

The California Department of Public Health plans to give Orange County 6,200 doses of Naloxone, which can reverse an opioid overdose, as part of a statewide plan to combat addiction. A local nonprofit will distribute the drug to at-risk individuals.