Drug overdoses killed 72,287 Americans in 2017, according to new estimates released by the Center for Disease Control. That’s an increase of about 9.5 percent from 2016. This number is higher than the number of American soldiers who died in all of the Vietnam War. It’s higher than the number of Americans who died in the peak year of the U.S. AIDS epidemic. It’s more than four-and-a-half times the number of Americans who were killed by guns in 2017.
Ohio has been particularly hard hit by drug overdoses in recent years and, within the state, Fayette County has consistently been one of the counties with the highest rate of drug overdoses per capita. In 2017, the county came in second for highest rate of overdoses per capita, with Montgomery County ranking first.
In Fayette County, 26 people died from overdoses in 2017 as compared to seven in 2016, according to preliminary data from Fayette County Public Health. That’s close to a 300 percent increase in a single year. Deputy Health Commissioner Leigh Cannon attributed this sharp rise in deaths to the increased prevalence of fentanyl and carfentanyl and to the fact that Fayette County is conveniently located near major interstates, which makes it something of a “hub” for drug traffickers.
Fayette County isn’t the only county to be hard-hit by synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and carfentanyl. These drugs, which are much stronger than most poppy-derived opioids, have been tied to 39,000 of the total 49,060 opioid overdoses in the country in 2017. That means nearly 80 percent of all deadly opioid overdoses in 2017 were linked to synthetic opioids.
In addition to the 26 individuals who died from overdoses in Fayette County in 2017, many more were saved from the brink of death when they overdosed. There were 353 suspected overdoses in the county, according to preliminary statistics from local law enforcement. It’s unclear how many individuals actually overdosed during the year, as a single individual may have overdosed multiple times.
Within the community, many people and groups are working to help these individuals to recover from their addiction and to prevent others from ever beginning to abuse drugs. This includes two coalitions in the county: Faith in Recovery and Community Action.
It also includes the health department, which has been working on a number of initiatives to reduce overdoses and to prevent fatalities, including distributing Narcan to first responders. Narcan is a medication used to block the effects of opioids.
In addition, the department’s Vivitrol program has had a high rate of success, according to Ashley Roberts at Fayette County Public Health. The program involves giving patients the Vivitrol shot, which blocks opioid cravings in the brain, and providing counseling and other services to recovering addicts. Roberts said it involves “a lot of collaboration between multiple agencies.” She said the program has a 40 percent success rate as compared to similar programs that tend to have a 13 percent success rate.
Cannon said one of the big issues in Fayette County is that “there’s a huge stigma surrounding addiction” and “a lot of addiction is hidden.” She said she is hopeful, however, that this year “the numbers will change,” and overdoses will begin to fall.
Washington Court House City Prosecutor Mark Pitstick said the local courts and social services are also working to prevent overdoses and to help those struggling with addiction. One way in which Pitstick has been trying to help “those individuals who have drug addiction or the beginning of drug addiction” has been the sometimes controversial practice of charging them with inducing panic.
A law passed by Ohio’s State Legislature, known as the Good Samaritan Law, prevents individuals who do not have prior records from being charged with a drug-related offense if first responders are called to rescue them from an overdose. Pitstick said the idea behind this law was to encourage people to call for help by assuring them that they wouldn’t get in trouble. He said this law resulted in difficulty tracking the individuals who overdose.
In response, Pitstick explained, “We came up with the idea of inducing panic about a year-and-a-half, maybe two years ago, as a result of not being able to basically keep track of the individuals who overdose. If we can’t keep track of the individuals who overdose, then we can’t offer them any kind of help.”
Pitstick said “inducing panic is not a drug-related offense.” The charge carries the potential of six months in jail and $1,000 fine, but Pitstick said those charged with the offense are offered a diversion program that usually includes counseling and rehabilitation. Also, as long as they maintain the rules of the diversion program for 90 to 180 days, the case against them is dismissed.
Pitstick said the charge of inducing panic has been used on only about 35-40 people. He said it’s not always “a perfect fit,” but, “It allows us to track those individuals, to help them. I believe we’ve saved lives with it.”
Although Pitstick believes the number for the year so far is down from last year’s count at the same time, he said, “There are still people who are overdosing on heroin,” adding, “We don’t want to be satisfied until we have zero overdoses and zero deaths. The only way to do that is to eliminate heroin addiction, period.”
In addition to the continued scourge of heroin, Pitstick said methamphetamines have recently grown in prevalence within the county. He believes this is because people are afraid of heroin and because meth is currently cheap, but, he cautioned, in the long run meth is “as bad or worse than heroin. It’s an insidious drug.”
Pitstick believes the shuttering of many pain clinics across Ohio greatly contributed to the rise of heroin. He said these clinics had prescribed opioid pain killers to patients for “many, many years” and “when they closed the pain clinics, they did nothing about the addiction of those individuals to these pills.”
He added, “It caused a problem by closing down the pain clinics without offering any kind of addiction counseling.”
As a result, many individuals found themselves sick from opioid withdrawals and desperate for a fix. So, they turned to heroin, which is cheaper and easier to find on the streets than pills.
Pitstick said, “This is a unique problem that we have with heroin addiction and it takes thought,” adding, “The only thing that we’re trying to do is keep people from dying.”
In addition to these coalitions and government programs, many individuals within Fayette County have taken it upon themselves to work to help those suffering from addiction.
For example, local man and recovering addict Cody Bowen has helped to organize the CommUNITY event which aims to raise awareness for the opioid epidemic and to show those in need the treatment options that are available to them. The event will be held this Saturday, Aug. 25 at the Bible Baptist Temple. It will start at 1 p.m.
Local woman Nikki Virts, who lost her father to addiction, is also hosting an event to raise awareness for the opioid epidemic. This Overdose Awareness Balloon Launch will be held at the Rose Avenue Community Center on Aug. 31 at 5:30 p.m.
Reach Megan Neary at 614-440-9124 or @MeganNeary2