Ohio’s accidental opioid-related overdose deaths by prescription drugs have dropped considerably over the past seven years. However, overdose deaths related to fentanyl, cocaine, methamphetamine, and combinations of those drugs have jumped significantly.
Those are the findings of a recent report by the Ohio Department of Health. It shows the number of unintentional overdose deaths caused by opiates in prescribed drugs has decreased by 28 percent statewide since 2011. That statistic is emphasized by comparing the percentage of unintentional overdose deaths recorded in 2011 – 40.9 – to that of 2017 – 10.8.
Additionally, 523 of Ohio’s 4,854 unintentional overdose deaths in 2017 were attributed to prescription opioids, as compared to the ratio of 564 of 4,050 unintentional overdose deaths in 2016.
But illicit fentanyl has caused a spike in unintentional drug overdoses in Ohio, accounting for 70.7 percent in 2017, as compared to 58.2 percent in 2016 and 37.9 percent in 2015. Unintentional drug overdose deaths caused by combinations of fentanyl and heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and other related drugs totaled 3,431 in 2017 alone.
In Fulton County, there were 36 unintentional drug overdose deaths between 2012-17, representing deaths from all drug sources. After the county recorded just one or two accidental overdose deaths annually for five years, the deaths spiked in to nine in 2012, and to 10 in 2016.
Only three unintentional overdose deaths were recorded in the county in 2017 but all were related to fentanyl, an opioid so potent it’s usually prescribed only in cases of extreme pain. Tonie Long, director of Quality Improvement for the four-county ADAMhs board, said Fulton County hasn’t witnessed a pure heroin overdose death in over 1 1/2 years. She said the common denominator for unintentional overdose deaths has been fentanyl.
“Any time there’s a death, it’s a tragedy. So we need to continue to work to bring those numbers to zero,” she said. “Unfortunately, we’re always going to have people who overdose unintentionally in the county.”
In fact, Long said, the four-county area has held its own against accidental overdoses. Between 2012-17, Defiance County reported 31, Henry County, 19, and Williams County, 22.
“We have been very fortunate here. A lot of that has to do with making sure that people who need care get care,” she said. “Having care where people can access it in our community is important.”
Long credits the locally low statistics to effective interventions by drug programs. “When you look at those numbers coming down, the common denominator is the treatments we have in our community,” she said. “We have the full continuum of care right here in our four-county area.”
Fulton County Health Commissioner Kim Cupp said fentanyl use is especially troubling because every person abusing it responds differently.
“You can have two people use the same amount and you’d have a different reaction,” she said. “The problem is challenging to define.”
Cupp said illicit use of fentanyl behind closed doors makes it difficult to gauge how much is actually being abused countywide. “It’s hard to say how much of a problem it actually is. We don’t have the right measuring stick,” she said.
And while she’s not surprised by the county’s consistently lower numbers of accidental overdoses as compared to other areas of the state, “we still need to be vigilant, and do as a community what we can to keep it in check. That means getting people the help they need before it becomes a death certificate.”
Cupp said Fulton County is fortunate to have medical and help organizations willing to work together to tackle drug abuse. She said cooperation like that is not always available around the state due to competition for resources among programs and a fear of change.
“These are barriers that prevent progress. (In Fulton County), we can see the signs in the (prevention) data that are encouraging, and we want to continue,” she said.
Noting the increasing need to maintain local drug programs, Long urged voters to pass a five-year renewal tax levy the ADAMhs board has placed on the November ballot. First passed in 1989, it requires no new money, and would generate $2.55 million annually.
“I can’t stress the importance of our levy enough,” she said.
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.