Clark County overdose deaths increase: ‘Any overdose death is too many’

Brooke Ehlers, technical leader of the Miami Valley Regional Crime Laboratory’s Chemistry Section, tests a drug sample for fentanyl. The highly potent synthetic opioid — often cut with heroin or used alone — has been on the streets for more than a year in the Dayton area and is responsible for an increasing number of overdose deaths. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

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Brooke Ehlers, technical leader of the Miami Valley Regional Crime Laboratory’s Chemistry Section, tests a drug sample for fentanyl. The highly potent synthetic opioid — often cut with heroin or used alone — has been on the streets for more than a year in the Dayton area and is responsible for an increasing number of overdose deaths. CHRIS STEWART / STAFF

Accidental overdose deaths are on the rise again in Clark County, as there were 70 such deaths in 2021, a 32% increase over 2020, according to preliminary data from Clark County Coroner Dr. Susan Brown.

The Clark County Combined Health District is finding drugs laced with fentanyl, which is likely a contributing factor to the increase in deaths, health planning supervisor Gracie Hemphill said.

“A lot of times people don’t even know that there is fentanyl in something they’re taking, like counterfeit Xanax and other pills,” she said.

Accidental drug overdose deaths were much higher back in 2017, with 104 in Clark County, according to the coroner’s office. The number dropped to 65 in 2018 and bottomed out at 52 in 2019. After virtually no change in 2020 (53 deaths), the number rose again to 70 last year.

And that figure of 70 deaths is still likely to go higher, as toxicology and final reports are still pending from some other cases late in 2021.

Clark County Health Commissioner Charles Patterson said the Springfield area is seeing marijuana and other drugs laced with fentanyl. He said in previous years, people who were overdosing were seeking heroin or fentanyl and accidentally taking too much, but today it’s common for someone to use a drug not knowing the added fentanyl is there.

Clark County has partnered with community organizations to create a syringe exchange program and distributions of Narcan, which can be used to revive someone after an overdose. The goal is to reduce overdose deaths to zero, Patterson said.

“We certainly would like to see as we come out of this pandemic that people will be out together and be more careful in their choices,” he said. “Any overdose death is too many, and we don’t want to be happy that we dropped this down to 40 or 50. Our ultimate goal is to get this down to zero. There’s no reason why we should be losing people to illicit drugs.”

Families of Addicts Executive Director Anita Kitchen said she is concerned about the increase in accidental overdose deaths. She said COVID has not been kind to people with addiction and has prevented some from getting help.

“Once again we need to reduce the stigma and we need to make sure people know there is a lot of help,” Kitchen said. “People do care, this is not a moral failing. I don’t know anyone who wakes up and says ‘I want to be a drug addict.’”

She also said virtual meetings are not the same as in-person meetings and it’s tougher to tell if someone needs extra help over the computer compared to when they are seen in real life. Kitchen said she hopes society can get a handle on the COVID-19 pandemic and that it will help people with addiction get back to their support system.

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Brooke Ehlers, of the Miami Valley Regional Crime Laboratory, tests a drug sample for fentanyl. CHRIS STEWART / FILE PHOTO

Credit: Chris Stewart

Brooke Ehlers, of the Miami Valley Regional Crime Laboratory, tests a drug sample for fentanyl. CHRIS STEWART / FILE PHOTO

Credit: Chris Stewart

caption arrowCaption
Brooke Ehlers, of the Miami Valley Regional Crime Laboratory, tests a drug sample for fentanyl. CHRIS STEWART / FILE PHOTO

Credit: Chris Stewart

Credit: Chris Stewart

In Montgomery County, there were more than 330 deaths caused by accidental overdose in 2021 — an increase over 2020, but by less than 10%. Montgomery County has seen the same pattern as Clark County, with a huge overdose death toll in 2017 (556) then numbers decreasing for two years, before rising again in 2020 and 2021.

Health professionals there say the stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic along with an increase in fentanyl-laced illicit drugs are likely leading to the increase in deaths. They are also hopeful that overdose deaths will fall this year but warn the future numbers are impossible to predict.

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Health professionals said they believe the reason the numbers have fallen so drastically since 2017 is the availability of Narcan in the community as well as programs such as the community overdose action team and rapid response teams that seek to connect people battling addiction with services.

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