Local authorities are concerned after an increase in the number of recent reported overdoses in Highland County.
Tonya Sturgill, the director of programming and clinical services at the Highland County Probation Department, told The Times-Gazette that the stay-at-home order greatly impacted those in treatment.
During quarantine, the Highland County Drug Court’s participants experienced a reduction in services, which affected their doctors’ appointments for blood tests and medical assisted treatment. Participants relied on telehealth services to communicate with their counselors, and the probation department didn’t make as many home visits, connecting instead with participants via phone.
“We have seen a lot of relapses over the last three months, even with those who had six, eight, 10 months of clean time prior to COVID,” Sturgill said. “They are struggling with the limited counseling and the limited support groups that were being offered, and moving from in-person to via phone was a hard adjustment and an additional stressor in an already stressful time.”
In a previous interview, Highland County Common Pleas Judge Rocky Coss, who presides over the county’s drug court program, said he’s seen indications of similar issues across the country.
“From what I’ve been reading from different communications, this is something that’s happening all over the country,” Coss said. “We’ve seen some increases in relapse and overdose deaths. We’ve actually had a couple in the county — none of our drug court people — here in the last month. I probably close at least one case a month, sometimes more, because of people dying who were on probation or have charges pending or awaiting sentencing.”
According to Highland County Sheriff’s Deputy Scott Miller, the sheriff’s office received 20 calls regarding overdoses in May; in May 2019, the sheriff’s office received 11.
Highland County Coroner Dr. Jeff Beery told The Times-Gazette that his office saw one overdose death in Highland County in May.
In a previous interview, Beery said his office had seen a decrease in overdose deaths in 2020. From Jan. 1 to May 11, the coroner’s office saw three confirmed overdose deaths and one probable.
“Those are just ones that are reportable,” Coss said. “We often have people who overdose and they recover or get Narcan’ed at home and don’t need to get reported. It’s probably a few more than that — in our county and, I think, everywhere.”
Coss speculated that it may be a few months before more complete data is available as so many people worked from home during the stay-at-home order and may not have had the same access to data and information they would normally.
Regardless, Coss said the availability of Narcan, or naloxone, to the public has certainly saved lives.
“Before, people wouldn’t call, or they’d call and by the time they called and they got to the hospital to get Narcan’ed, it was too late,” Coss said. “Having Narcan available has been a big factor, I think, in reducing those kinds of fatalities.”
During a May 28 Highland County Drug Abuse Prevention Coalition meeting, Carol Baden, RecoveryOhio community health adviser for Governor Mike DeWine, said RecoveryOhio had partnered with Ohio Mental Health and Addiction Services (OMHAS) to develop a strategy in the face of a surge in opioid use.
“The surge was here, we started seeing the uptick in many of our communities, it is here now — we are aware of that,” Baden said. “We really ramped up our surveillance, assessments and surveys of communities to make sure they had naloxone — we were working on that in March — so we were comfortable with everyone being supplied and also that they had a point of contact, someone to reach out to if they felt they had more need. That was then through the health systems, the QRTs [Quick Response Teams], the law enforcement.”
As part of a “Naloxone for All” initiative, people were also able to request naloxone kits, which were mailed directly to their homes.
“Meeting people where they are is so important right now,” Baden said. “For the most part, we were seeing that there were other organizations and entities that were picking up the slack where we needed these partnerships because the QRTs couldn’t be out there engaging these folks anymore.”
Baden added, “People were not going to the ER. We did have a brief period of time that was quite alarming that our overdose deaths were exceeding ER visits, which pointed to the fact that we needed better communication.”
Baden said organizations and entities like Interact for Health, an organization that focuses on the health of all people in the Greater Cincinnati area, encouraged people to seek medical treatment for emergencies like overdoses during the stay-at-home order.
According to Baden, the number of ER visits has increased.
Franklin County, where Columbus is the county seat, experienced what Franklin County Coroner Anahi Ortiz described as a “surge,” according to a CNN article published on May 7.
According to CNN, there was a 50 percent increase in fatal overdoses in Franklin County from January to April 15. There were 62 overdose deaths in Franklin County in the month of April, and in a single weekend in early May, Franklin County saw 28 non-fatal overdoses.
“The thing to remember, particularly about opiate addiction, is that it is a medical condition,” Coss said. “It’s a disease that people have to live with. It’s like being diabetic — you’re going to be addicted; you have to have insulin. If you don’t take it, then you have repercussions. The same goes for medical assisted treatment or with people getting counseling. Having Narcan is kind of like having an EpiPen for people who have reactions. Narcan is a life-saving device. You have to understand, while these people are in front of me in the drug court because of crimes, this is a recognized medical problem, and it has to be treated.”
Reach McKenzie Caldwell at 937-402-2570.