While an apparent decline in reported drug overdoses that began late in the summer last year seems to have held over the winter, the organizers of a local anti-drug initiative have said tracking overdose rates is not an exact science.
The recently unveiled Quick Response Team, a multi-disciplined group of local officials and professionals, is aimed at curbing overdoses here by visiting overdose survivors and offering treatment resources.
Highland County Health Commissioner and QRT member Jared Warner, who was tasked with compiling data for the QRT, said on Tuesday that identifying the scope of the overdose problem here has been a challenge.
“There’s not an easy way to count these overdoses,” he said. “EMS sees some and some go to the hospital, sometimes the hospital gets some and they don’t touch EMS, so it’s another piece of the complicated problem that we’re trying to get solutions for.”
Heather Gibson, president of the Highland County Drug Abuse Prevention Coalition, told The Times-Gazette in a previous interview that it’s likely far more overdoses occur than are reported.
Gibson added that she’s heard of many cases where overdose victims were dropped off — or “dumped” — in the parking lots of local hospitals to be treated.
“I just don’t know without having the whole picture,” she said. “We’re still putting pieces of the puzzle together.”
But one thing is clear: In regard to drug overdoses, 2017 broke all the records here.
Paint Creek Joint EMS/Fire District Chief Dave Manning said the district alone responded to a total of 251 overdoses in 2017, compared to 131 in 2016. In prior years, Paint Creek responded to fewer than 90 overdoses annually.
So far since Jan. 1, 2018, the dispatch center at the Highland County Sheriff’s Office, which dispatches all emergency medical services in the county, has received a total of seven calls directly reporting overdoses, according to data available on Tuesday.
Corp. Scott Miller, dispatch coordinator at the sheriff’s office, said it’s likely that data does not paint a complete picture of overdoses here, since some callers will identify an overdose as an unconscious person or a different illness.
Additionally, one incident report from the sheriff’s office showed a deputy responded to a reported overdose on Jan. 3, but the narrative did not reflect that an overdose had occurred.
Manning said Paint Creek has responded to a total of two overdoses since Jan. 1.
Both Miller and Manning remarked that their respective data seemed surprisingly low.
“I’m not complaining,” Manning said. “Surprised, I guess, would be my statement at that number. I’m optimistic.”
As reported by The Times-Gazette, overdose rates seemed to drop off late in the summer last year, and officials struggled to find answers as to why.
One explanation could be the increased presence of Narcan in the public’s hands. Narcan is the brand name of the opiate-blocking drug naloxone. The health department has been distributing free Narcan kits to anyone who attends training events in the area since last April.
To date, 212 kits have been given away, according to Warner, who has led the initiative. Fifty-seven more were given to law enforcement.
Here and throughout Ohio, the initiative has been met with some criticism, with some arguing that the drug being given away for free eliminates the risk of someone dying from an overdose, and as a result encourages more drug use.
There have also been reports of “Narcan parties” where a group of drug users have gotten together and used opiates while one person stays sober to administer Narcan if needed.
Warner has said he feels if there’s a way to stop deaths from happening, it’s his duty to make sure it’s available no matter what.
“To date, I know of eight overdoses (in Highland County) that have been reversed,” Warner said. “That’s a success in my book.”
Highland County Sheriff Donnie Barrera said on Tuesday that from what he’s seen, the downward trend in overdose numbers seems to have continued.
“It seems like they’re slowing down,” Barrera said. “But we don’t want to jinx anything. It seems like we’re not getting quite as many as we have been.”
Barrera, who is also a member of the QRT, said he hopes the initiative will turn the tide.
“We’d like to see it turn around a little bit and get people focused on heading in the right direction, instead of coming to jail,” he said.
Gibson, who spearheaded the formation of the QRT, said a few more members are expected to join in the next few weeks, and the team will likely deploy for the first time at the beginning of next month.
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.