Fatal drug overdoses kept rising in Ohio last year to a record 4,854, a 20 percent increase over 2016’s toll.
It was the eighth year in a row that drug deaths increased, according to data on unintentional drug deaths reported to the Ohio Department of Health.
County coroners logged 804 more fatal overdoses in 2017 than the 4,050 reported the previous year.
Powerful and deadly fentanyl continued to fuel Ohio’s raging drug epidemic. The synthetic opioid accounted for nearly three-fourths of deaths, killing 3,431 people in 2017, 46 percent more than in the previous year.
Cocaine-related deaths climbed 39 percent in 2017 to 1,540, from 1,109 the previous year.
Still, the state data showed some positive signs. Notably:
• Heroin deaths dropped 46 percent last year to 987. That’s down from 1,444 in 2016 and was the fewest in four years.
• Fewer Ohioans are dying from prescription opioids, which are often a gateway to heroin and fentanyl use. Fatal overdoses from prescription opioids fell to 523 in 2017; that was the fewest in eight years and down from a peak of 724 deaths in 2011.
The number of deaths fell in 26 of Ohio’s 88 counties in 2017, including urban Lucas and Summit counties, as well as Portage and Stark counties. In central Ohio, fatal overdoses dropped in Wayne County to 20 from 36 the previous year.
“By no means has the problem been solved. We have to keep our foot on the gas pedal,” said Annie McFadden, deputy chief of staff for Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan.
After a surge in deaths in Summit County in 2016, local officials took several steps that probably helped to save lives, McFadden said. They created quick-response teams made up of police officers, fire medics and addiction counselors to follow up with those who overdose, urging them get into treatment and helping them do so.
Police officers as well as medics have been equipped with naloxone, and an opioid task force is to direct available resources to where they are most needed.
Those on the front lines say that despite an increase in the number of addicts getting treatment, the death toll is rising because fentanyl is being mixed not only with heroin but also with a variety of other illegal drugs.
According to a recent state report on drug trends, “drug cartels have flooded Ohio” with fentanyl, making it widely available statewide. Demand continues to increase because users say the highly potent drug produces a superior high.
At the same time, many users don’t realize that they’ve taken fentanyl because it’s being cut into heroin and cocaine and even “pressed” into prescription opioids, the report said.
“Drug dealers are flooding communities with different drugs to see what takes. They are very smart businesspeople,” said Lori Criss, CEO of the Ohio Council of Behavioral Health & Family Services Providers.
She and others liken combating the drug crisis to a game of Whac-A-Mole as targets keep shifting.
“This is a marathon,” Criss said. “There will be no quick fix.”
Hardest hit last year was Dayton’s Montgomery County, where drug deaths skyrocketed 63 percent to 521— 201 more than in 2016.
That’s 98 deaths for every 100,000 residents, the highest rate in the state.
The number of fatal overdoses in Montgomery County was second only to perennial leader Cuyahoga County, which recorded 598 fatalities in 2017, a 9 percent increase from the previous year.
In Franklin County, 431 people died from drug overdoses last year; that was the fourth most deaths in the state. The total was 37 percent higher than the 314 in 2016.
“Fentanyl is being mixed with all kinds of street drugs. Often someone overdoses and doesn’t even realize they took fentanyl,” said Kelli Newman Myers, spokeswoman for Columbus Public Health.
The health department encourages drug users to keep handy the medication naloxone, which blocks the effect of opioids and can reverse overdoses, “to keep them alive until they are ready for treatment.”
“If you are using anything, it can have fentanyl in it, and it’s deadly.”
In southern Ohio, drug-ravaged Scioto County long has been considered “ground zero” of the state’s opioid crisis, and 2017 brought no relief. Overdose deaths rose 46 percent to 51 last year, from 35 in 2016.
Cheri Walter, chief executive officer of the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities, said that although the state’s death toll was high, it could have been far worse.
“We also know more people are in treatment, more people are in recovery, and more people are being saved by naloxone,” Walter said.
“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.
Gov. John Kasich’s administration is spending more than $1 billion a year in the drug fight, most of it to provide addiction treatment though Medicaid expansion. The state also is investing in providing naloxone to first responders and others, drug courts, housing for recovering addicts, startup funding for initiatives to fight drug abuse, and educational programs aimed at preventing youths from starting to use drugs.
The Ohio Department of Health is to release its analysis of 2017 drug deaths in the coming days, said agency spokesman Russ Kennedy.
The data “confirms illicit fentanyl is driving overdose deaths in the state. At the same time, Ohio is seeing significant progress in reducing the number of prescription opioids available for abuse,” he said.
“The data also show that the number of unintentional overdose deaths declined during the second half of 2017 by 23 percent,” Kennedy said.