Louisiana has for years been drastically undercounting the number of people who die with drugs like heroin in their bodies, but a new project at the state Department of Health aims to correct the tally.

That initiative has already yielded a stunning 84 percent upward adjustment in the number of people who died in Louisiana last year with heroin, fentanyl and prescription painkillers in their bodies. Instead of 305 deaths, officials now believe that at least 561 deaths statewide involved the presence of opioids.

Now "biostatisticians" are working with parish coroners to find other holes in the data, with the aim of providing doctors, law enforcement personnel and lawmakers with a complete picture of the opioid crisis’ devastating toll in Louisiana.

“I think if we can truly understand the extent of opioids across the state, we can have a better understanding of how we can provide the resources needed to address the issue,” said Dr. Esteban Gershanik, director of the state’s Bureau of Health Informatics.

Opioids killed an estimated 33,000 people in the U.S. in 2015, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, many experts believe that number may also be underestimating the problem.

In Louisiana, a flaw in official statistics lies in how death data are reported to the state’s Vital Records office, according to Gershanik. Many death certificates report only a person’s primary cause of death, rather than noting all of the drugs that may have been found in their system.

Even though someone’s cause of death may not be an accidental overdose, drugs can still have contributed to their death. If a person dies of a heart attack, for instance, a death certificate may not list the drugs that were also found in their body.

“This would exclude a number of deaths in which opioids were potentially associated or a contributing factor, but not the primary cause of death,” Gershanik said.

That distinction between a primary cause of death and contributing factors helps explain the massive gap between the state’s official tally for heroin-linked deaths in New Orleans and the tally compiled by Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, the parish coroner.

The state listed 27 deaths with opioids present in Orleans Parish in 2016. Earlier this year, however, Rouse said he determined that 166 deaths involved the presence of opioids. There were 211 drug-related deaths in 2016 in New Orleans overall, a number that exceeded the number of homicides for the first time.

To help the state catch massive reporting gaps like that, the CDC awarded nearly $1 million in grants to the state Department of Health earlier this year. Roughly half of the money will be used to better track deaths. The other half will be used for a “rapid surveillance” system to make data on fatal and non-fatal overdoses available within weeks.

Early next year, the state hopes to offer an online “dashboard” displaying opioid death data.

Gershanik said his work under the CDC grants has already begun. The first stage of his collaboration with coroners in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Tammany and East Baton Rouge parishes yielded the 84 percent adjustment in drug-linked deaths last year.

Data from other parishes will likely send the total even higher, Gershanik said.

Follow Matt Sledge on Twitter, @mgsledge.

msledge@theadvocate.com | (504) 636-7432