A newspaper survey of Ohio county coroners that found more than 4,000 people died from drug overdoses last year in Ohio was another indication that the crisis in Highland County and the surrounding region is just part of an epidemic sweeping the entire state.
The Associated Press reported that the Columbus Dispatch’s Sunday story showed that the state’s 4,149 unintentional fatal overdoses in 2016 are a 36 percent increase from the previous year when just over 3,000 deaths were reported.
As reported in March by The Times-Gazette, Highland County Coroner Jeff Beery reported that there has been a steady increase in deaths related one way or another to drugs, raising fatalities connected to illicit drugs to alarming proportions.
Beery said then that the word “epidemic” is not sufficient to describe the toll being taken on Highland County. “It’s a craze, not an epidemic,” he said, adding that “epidemic” implies something beyond people’s control.
In 2016, Beery identified 16 drug overdose deaths in Highland County. But he provided a report on 50 cases from 2016 that included not just overdoses, but also deaths by car crashes, burns, gun shots, heart attacks, hyperthermia, suicides, asphyxia and embolisms where he said drug use or a history of drug use was present as a common denominator.
While fatal overdoses are a growing problem, non-fatal overdoses are accelerating at an alarming pace, keeping law enforcement and emergency medical responders increasingly occupied with responding to such calls.
Meanwhile, the Highland County Health Department has begun providing free naloxone kits for people to use to attempt to revive overdose victims. The Dispatch story reported that the state Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services said Ohio’s fatal overdose numbers could have been much higher were it not for lives saved with naloxone.
Dr. Mark Hurst, medical director for Ohio’s health and mental health departments, said that while naloxone has helped prevent deaths, it’s not the answer to solving opioid addiction.
While Ohio was one of the leaders in shutting down “pill mills” that sold prescription opioids like oxycodone, health officials say it has led to addicts switching to more powerful opioids.
Citing an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation that used statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Dispatch said Ohio led the nation in the total number of fatal overdoses in 2014 and 2015. Final numbers from 2016 are still being compiled.
The increase is being attributed to heroin and the powerful synthetic opioids fentanyl and carfentanil. Last year’s total is expected to go higher as coroners tabulate final numbers.
Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, far outpaced the rest of the state with 666 deaths in 2016 with the majority of those deaths blamed on fentanyl use.
William Denihan, the outgoing chief executive officer of the Cuyahoga County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board, called the opioid epidemic a “tsunami.”
“We’ve done so much, but the numbers are going the other way,” Denihan said. “I don’t see the improvement.”
In Akron’s Summit County, nearly half of its 308 overdose deaths last year were attributed to the use of carfentanil, a powerful opioid that’s supposed to be used as a tranquilizer for large animals. Gary Guenther, an investigator for the Summit County Medical Examiner’s Office, said addicts clamor to get the lethal drug when they hear it’s on the streets.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Guenther said.
“This is going to turn around,” Hurst said. “I wish I could tell you when it’s going to turn around.”