Although there have already been more overdoses so far this year than all of last year in Highland County, several local officials agreed on Friday that overdose rates here seem to have experienced a slight decline in the last two months. Many struggled to find an answer why.
Corp. Scott Miller, dispatch coordinator at the Highland County Sheriff’s Office, told The Times-Gazette that the dispatch center at the sheriff’s office, which dispatches all emergency medical services in the county, received 21 calls reporting overdoses from Aug. 1 to Sept. 30, less than the same timeframe last year, when the sheriff’s office received 23 overdose calls.
Last year, the dispatch center received 170 overdose calls, while there have already been 197 this year, Miller said.
“We’re still up, but it seems like it has slowed,” Miller said.
Sheriff Donnie Barrera, Hillsboro Police Department interim chief Shawn Kelley and Greenfield Police Chief Jeremiah Oyer all said they’d like to attribute the difference to heavier enforcement, but agreed there’s simply no way to tell for sure.
“I like to look at it as more enforcement,” Barrera said. “But, it could be the fact that the economy is bad and they don’t have the money to buy it.”
Oyer gave no exact statistics, but said overall he’s noticed the difference in Greenfield as well.
“Really, there’s no 100-percent positive answer,” Oyer said. “I’d like to give credit to my officers. Our arrests have increased and we’ve been trying to be more aggressive in enforcement, so I’d like to think that’s it, but it could be for any number of reasons.”
Branden Jackman, public information officer and paramedic at Paint Creek Joint EMS/Fire District, said district personnel have responded to slightly more overdoses than were reported by the dispatch center, since 911 callers sometimes identify overdoses as unconscious people or other illnesses. But he’s still noticed a downward trend in the amount of overdoses emergency crews have treated lately.
“I’ve noticed we’re not responding to quite as many as we’ve had,” Jackman said.
When it comes to cause, Jackman said, “It’s pure speculation.” But he feels it may be due to Highland County Health Department awareness initiatives and the distribution of free Narcan kits for the public.
Narcan is the market name of naloxone, an over-the-counter drug that combats the effects of opiate overdose. The Highland County Health Department, in partnership with REACH for Tomorrow, has for several months been distributing free Narcan kits to the public, assembled by Project DAWN (Deaths Avoided With Naloxone) and funded by a grant from Interact for Health.
“I think (the addicts) are self treating,” Jackman said. “With the health department’s initiatives, they want people to be safe above all, and they’ve really pushed to get Narcan into the hands of the addicts. And, if that saves a life, it saves a life.”
Highland County Health Commissioner Jared Warner, who has spearheaded efforts to distribute Narcan, said there are “at least eight people walking around Highland County right now that wouldn’t be alive without our Project DAWN Narcan kits.”
Warner recognized the distribution of Narcan has been controversial, since many people have argued that naloxone takes away the risk of overdose for addicts and encourages them to use drugs.
So far, Warner said, 140 kits have been distributed to the public and 35 kits have been given to law enforcement. Twenty trainings have been conducted, according to Warner.
“It is a little early to measure the 2017 overdose rates, so it might be too early to say if we are in a period of decline or not,” he said. “We have seen neighboring communities have a bad batch of heroin come through and leave a dozen people dead over a single weekend, so I don’t want to say that things are suddenly better and there is nothing more to worry about.”
Warner credited improvements in recent overdose numbers to an overall community effort, recognizing churches, first responders, government agencies and other organizations for “working hard to make things better.”
Dr. Jeff Beery, the county coroner, said his office has only investigated one drug fatality in the past month, and as far as he’s aware, there have been no reported overdoses in at least the past two weeks.
“I’ve only had one (overdose death) in the past month, which is amazing,” Beery said. “I’m very pleased. I hope it’s not just a blip.”
Beery described the event as “unprecedented,” and “hopeful.”
“I’d encourage everybody to keep praying that this trend continues,” he said.
Miller said with incarceration rates higher than normal, potential overdose victims may be in jail rather than out on the street.
But it seems even the Highland County jail isn’t immune to overdose problems.
Barrera said two women overdosed in the jail on Sept. 21 after one of them allegedly smuggled drugs into the facility.
Tonya Cruea, 30, has pending charges on the matter, which remains under investigation while authorities wait on drug tests from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Barrera said.
According to Barrera, Cruea allegedly brought the drugs in by hiding them inside her body, and shared the drugs with Sophia Valdez, 36. Both overdosed, Barrera said. One was treated with Narcan inside the jail, and another was brought to Highland District Hospital for treatment, according to Barrera.
Barrera said this isn’t the first time such an incident has occurred, but it’s difficult to prevent.
Heather Gibson, president of the Highland County Drug Abuse Coalition, said county officials may not be getting the full picture when it comes to overdoses.
Gibson said she believes there are more overdoses, possibly far more, than are being reported, since not all overdoses result in a 911 call.
“If somebody overdoses and they actually go to the ER, or somebody drops them off, we’re not getting any of those numbers,” Gibson said, adding that she’s heard of many cases where overdose victims have been dropped, or “dumped” off in the parking lot of the emergency room at Highland District Hospital or Adena Greenfield Medical Center.
“We’re hoping to capture more of that data and see what that looks like,” Gibson said.
If the dispatch numbers are truly representative of a trend, Gibson said she hopes it continues.
“I would like to think we peaked,” Gibson said. “I just don’t know without having the whole picture. We’re still putting pieces of the puzzle together.”
Gibson said the apparent dropoff in reported overdose numbers could be caused by anything from an increased awareness of the dangers of drug use, to drug traffickers concocting safer mixes of drugs.
“I just hope that the education we’ve done with Narcan has been twofold,” Gibson said. “In other words, we’ve educated people on how to use Narcan, but we’ve also really impressed on people how dangerous the stuff on the street is. There’s never been a more dangerous time to be an addict. And maybe people are getting that message. We can only hope, right?”
Barrera worries it’s only a matter of time before the deluge continues.
“Next month, it could go up again,” Barrera said. “And I think it will go back up… But I’d love to see it go down and stay down.”
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.