Clark County has seen 81 suspected drug overdose deaths as of July 18, surpassing the record total for all of last year, which local leaders say is a sign that drug abuse has become a public health crisis.
About 60 overdose deaths have been confirmed through the end of April, Clark County Coroner Dr. Richard Marsh said. He’s still waiting on autopsy reports to be completed for the other three months of the year.
Last year, the county saw a record 79 drug deaths — the majority of which involved illicit fentanyl, a drug that is 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin.
More than 500 people have died of drug overdoses in Clark County since 1998, according to coroner’s office records. More than half of those people — 265 — died between 2012 and 2016, the result of the opioid epidemic, Marsh said.
Clark County saw about 36 drug overdose deaths per year between 2011 and 2014, but that number more than doubled to 73 in 2015.
It’s known that dealers are increasingly putting fentanyl and carfentanil — both extraordinarily powerful opioids often used to boost the potency of street heroin — into other drugs, including cocaine.
Carfentanil is 100 times stronger than fentanyl and 10,000 times more powerful than morphine, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Its primary legitimate purpose is a tranquilizer for large animals like rhinos and elephants. Carfentanil has been linked to a significant number of overdose deaths nationwide — and now to fatalities in Clark County.
“Most of the time we’re seeing it with other opioids,” Marsh said.
The number of deaths has slowed down in recent months, the coroner said, but there have been lulls in the past and then overdoses increased as a new drug hit the market.
“I understand when something new comes out they want to try it but I’m hoping they don’t,” Marsh said. “I hope the numbers stay down but you just can’t predict it.”
The coroner’s office recently hired three part-time staffers to cover weekends when two other investigators are off work.
“We need to make sure we have people to call,” Marsh said.
The Springfield Fire/Rescue Division has used more 3,400 doses of Narcan in the past 10 years to revive people who have overdosed on opioids.
Firefighters have used more than 1,200 doses of naloxone so far this year — the drug used to revive overdose victims better known by its brand name Narcan — after using about 775 last year, according to records from the fire/rescue division.
As of July 7, local law enforcement agencies have responded to nearly 750 overdoses in Clark County, according to Clark County Prosecutor Andy Wilson.
Earlier this year, Wilson announced Clark County residents who overdose on opioids may face drug possession charges if they don’t seek treatment.
The 9-1-1 Good Samaritan law, which came into effect last September, provides immunity to people seeking medical assistance for a drug overdose, allowing them to report or seek help without charges. The Good Samaritan Law doesn’t apply to people who overdose three times or more and those who don’t seek help.
In March law enforcement agencies began handing out a card to people who overdose outlining the Good Samaritan law, including a formal request that they must seek help within 30 days, Wilson said. If they don’t seek treatment, the prosecutor’s office will pursue drug possession charges.
So far, the prosecutor’s office has handed out 21 cards and only two have been returned with evidence of compliance, he said. They’re still waiting for test results to pursue charges, Wilson said.
Five people are within the window to receive a referral, Wilson said. One of the people who returned a card has since overdosed, he said.
“We’re just going to handle it as the law requires,” Wilson said. “It’s ultimately up to the addict. We can’t make them take advantage of the Good Samaritan Law. All we can do is hold them accountable when they don’t and we’ll hold them accountable.”
The county recently saw multiple alerts for drug overdoses from the state health department last week, Clark County Health Commissioner Charles Patterson said. Last year, the county’s threshold was set at about four, Patterson said, but that number has increased to about eight this year. In order for an alert to be triggered, it means the county has had about 12 overdoses in a 24-hour period.
“It’s been a public health crisis for over a year now,” Patterson said.
With several recent announcements — including the warm-hand off and safe house partnership between the Springfield Regional Medical Center emergency room and local treatment facility McKinley Hall — Patterson is hopeful the community can put in a dent in the number of overdose deaths.
“We still have additional programming that’s coming online that should make a dent in this and give the people who choose a path to get out of this,” Patterson said. “It will get them to safety and give them a shot at recovery.”
SPRINGFIELD’S OPIOID WAR
By the numbers
750: Estimated number of drug overdoses in Clark County this year, the majority attributed to heroin and fentanyl.
81: Unconfirmed, suspected drug deaths so far this year.
79: Confirmed drug deaths in 2016.
About this series: Springfield’s Opioid War
The Springfield News-Sun has written extensively about opioid and heroin problems in Clark County in the past five years, including stories about multiple overdoses in one weekend and efforts to expand treatment options. This year, the News-Sun will take a deep dive into the community’s opioid epidemic and what local officials are doing to solve the problem.