Following skyrocketing fatal drug overdose numbers last year in Highland County and Ohio, drug fatalities here seem to have dropped off this year, leading Highland County Coroner Dr. Jeff Beery to wonder why.
“Every year I’ve been the coroner, it’s been a record breaker,” Beery said. “Last year was the record.”
Of the 54 cases Beery’s office processed last year, 31 were caused by illegal drugs, the coroner said.
Of the various concoctions that caused those deaths, Beery said more than half included fentanyl, a potent synthetic opiate that was responsible for the deaths of 3,431 people around the state last year, according to the Associated Press.
But, the coroner said, the majority of overdose deaths last year occurred prior to April.
Beery said he has his own theories as to why the carnage slowed, but among them are the advent of a more compassionate community effort to help those addicted, and an increase in local and federal-level drug enforcement.
Beery said one of his investigators last spring began visiting people who had overdosed to urge them to seek treatment, and that was around the same time overdoses dropped off.
As previously reported, that effort later evolved into the Highland County Quick Response Team, a multi-disciplined group of cops, medics, mental health care providers, public health officials and people of faith who regularly visit overdose survivors to help them get back on their feet and seek help.
“They pray with them and offer them help,” he said. “I think that’s helped.”
So far this year, the coroner’s office has only investigated five drug-related deaths, according to Beery.
“Unless people get really rowdy the last three months, we’ll be good,” he said.
As for an explanation, Beery pointed back to law enforcement and the Quick Response Team.
“They pray with them and offer help,” he said of the QRT. “I think that’s helped… Locally, I think our sheriff’s office and local police departments do a great job, so I think enforcement locally and at the federal level” is what has curbed overdose deaths here.
In the rest of the state, fatal drug overdoses increased to a record 4,854 last year, a 20-percent rise compared with the previous year, according to information reported to the state.
Data on unintentional drug deaths provided to the Ohio Department of Health show 2017 was the eighth year in a row that drug deaths increased, The Columbus Dispatch reported Sunday. Ohio’s county coroners logged 4,050 fatal overdoses in 2016.
The newspaper’s review of the data shows fentanyl continued to fuel the drug epidemic, accounting for nearly three-fourths of last year’s overdose deaths. That was 46 percent higher than in the previous year. Cocaine-related deaths increased 39 percent from 1,109 in 2016 to 1,540 last year.
Positive news shown by the data included a 46-percent drop in heroin deaths to 987 last year for the fewest deaths in four years.
Fatal overdoses from prescription opioids also fell in 2017 to 523. That was the lowest number in eight years, down from a peak of 724 deaths in 2011, the newspaper reported.
Russ Kennedy, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Health, said while review of the data confirms fentanyl is “driving overdose deaths in the state,” Ohio also is seeing “significant progress in reducing the number of prescription opioids available for abuse.”
Kennedy confirmed Sunday that the health department expects to release its own analysis of 2017 drug deaths this week. He also noted that the information shows the number of unintentional overdose deaths in Ohio declined during the second half of 2017 by 23 percent.
A recent state report on drug trends stated that “drug cartels have flooded Ohio” with fentanyl, and many users don’t realize they’ve taken the opioid because it’s being cut into heroin and cocaine and even “pressed” into prescription opioids.
“Drug dealers are flooding communities with different drugs to see what takes. They are very smart businesspeople,” said Lori Criss, chief executive officer of the Ohio Council of Behavioral Health & Family Services Providers.
Cheri Walter, chief executive officer of the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities, said the state’s death toll was high, but could have been much worse.
“The reality is, we’ve focused on opioids and heroin, and now we’re seeing more deaths involving other drugs, so we’ve got to (broaden our) focus on treatment” for all kinds of addiction, Walter said.
Gov. John Kasich’s administration is spending more than $1 billion a year to fight the drug epidemic, most of it to provide addiction treatment though Medicaid expansion. The state also is investing in providing the opioid-overdose antidote, naloxone, to first responders and others and in supporting efforts including drug courts, housing for recovering addicts and educational programs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570.