Clark County faces a public health crisis as the number of people dying from heroin and fentanyl overdoses continues to climb, several local health and law enforcement leaders said.
Over the past 16 months, 53 people have died from accidental drug deaths here, according to Clark County Coroner’s Office records.
Heroin was the cause of more than half of the overdose deaths last year. Fentanyl — a powerful narcotic often laced with heroin — is the cause of 75 percent of the overdose deaths confirmed so far this year.
The Springfield Regional Medical Center has treated on average one patient a day in the emergency department with overdose symptoms.
The toll of the drug use and deaths is widespread, from shattered families to stretched safety forces to maxed out treatment facilities.
“It’s devastating,” said Charles Rollins of local drug support organization Gemini Reliance Inc.
Local agencies are working to coordinate response for heroin overdoses, provide more treatment for addicts and offer more housing to assist with their recovery.
The Clark County Drug Death Review team has been formed to analyze the data about the circumstances of each death. The first meeting was held last month and included representatives from the police and fire divisions, the coroner’s office, prosecutors, local hospitals, and mental health and addiction treatment service providers.
“We want to review these issues to try to figure out what are the commonalities, what are the things we can do within the community to a put a structure in place to prevent these deaths and these addictions from occurring,” Clark County Health Commissioner Charles Patterson said.
The loss of life from addiction is heart-wrenching, said Wendy Doolittle, chief executive officer at treatment center McKinley Hall.
“They’re leaving behind loved ones, kids and parents,” she said. “It’s just heart-wrenching.”
Several support groups, including Gemini Reliance and the newly opened Many Pathways Recovery Center, are hosting a march on May 25 in downtown Springfield to celebrate recovery from addiction and to show people it is possible to bounce back.
“These are people who have overcome huge obstacles,” Rollins said. “They’re trying to live purposeful lives.”
‘Constantly fight that battle’
Two Springfield families are among the many mourning deaths of loved ones from drug overdoses this year.
Springfield resident Kayla Thomason, 22, died from an apparent overdose on April 1. She was found unresponsive behind an office building on West Pleasant Street before she died at Springfield Regional Medical Center.
Thomason had been jailed in January on drug charges and wasn’t scheduled to be released until mid-April, said her mother, Kunita Thomason.
Kunita Thomason wanted her daughter immediately admitted to McKinley Hall after her release, but said she was got out of jail early at the end of March. A few days after her release, she returned home. Kayla Thomason had struggled with drug abuse for many years, her mother said.
Kunita Thomason spoke to her again about receiving treatment, but couldn’t get her to fully commit to rehab.
“We tried everything with Kayla,” said Kelly Madewell, Kunita Thomason’s fiance.
The police should focus their efforts on arresting dealers, not users, to get the drugs off the street, Madewell said.
“It would be a more realistic goal,” he said.
Families of people struggling with heroin addiction should do whatever it takes to get their loved ones in rehab, Madewell said.
“People need to constantly fight that battle,” he said.
A few weeks later on April 27, Springfield resident Tom Scott received devastating news. His son, Springfield native James Scott, had died of an apparent overdose in a homeless encampment in Wilmington, N.C. He was found with needles in his tent, Tom Scott said.
Before his death, his father tried to talk to his son about coming home.
“We were going to start from the ground up,” Tom Scott said.
James Scott, who graduated from North High School, had been in-and-out of rehab several times, but couldn’t overcome his addiction, his father said.
Inside the tent, detectives also found a letter James Scott had written from the perspective of his addiction. The letter talked about the damage to his body, as well as to his family and friends.
“For after you have lost all those things, you can still depend on me to take even more,” he wrote. “You can depend on me to keep you in a living hell, to keep your mind, body and soul in turmoil. I will not be satisfied until you are dead, my friend!!!”
Heroin is an epidemic, Tom Scott said, and he hopes the letter can save lives in Springfield.
“It’s a tool that can be used to help people,” he said.
Strain on safety forces
The heroin epidemic also has stretched safety services.
Through May 11, the Springfield Fire/Rescue Division has used 360 doses of Narcan to revive overdose patients — more than all of last year. Narcan is a drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose.
During the same period last year, medics used 110 cans, Springfield Fire Chief Nick Heimlich said.
Many of the overdose victims need three or four doses to keep them alive, he said, due to the amount or blend of drugs in their system. Springfield is a member of the Greater Dayton Area Hospital Association Drug Bag program, which provides drugs, including Narcan, to ambulance providers at no cost to the municipalities.
City leaders are creating a coordinated response plan for overdoses because they now happen so regularly, Heimlich said. The response will allow dispatchers to send both police and emergency medical personnel straight to the incident scene.
“It’s one of the strongest indications that it’s risen to the top of our sort of crisis management mode,” he said.
Many overdose victims are approaching a near-death experience, Heimlich said, meaning the division must assign two three-man units, plus a police officer.
“It’s very time-consuming,” Heimlich said.
Fentanyl has also made its way from Montgomery County to Clark County, said Springfield Police Division Chief Stephen P. Moody. Fentanyl is a prescription drug, Marsh said, but labs are producing it synthetically.
Many people believe they’re buying heroin when they’re really getting fentanyl, which can be 20 times more potent, Moody said.
The problem isn’t one the police force can arrest its way out of, Moody said.
“We’re trying to go after the major dealers, the mid-level dealers here, and we’re having some success,” Moody said. “But as you know, there are people who will step right up to take their place.”
In March, the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office indicted a Springfield man accused of selling heroin to a person who later died of an overdose on a charge of involuntary manslaughter, the first time in Clark County.
Treatment centers at capacity
The Springfield Regional Medical Center has treated 526 patients in the emergency room with a diagnosis of overdose since the beginning of last year, an average of about one per day.
Through May 13, the hospital emergency department has treated approximately 236 overdoses this year, including 76 in February.
As the number of overdoses increases, so does the number of people seeking treatment, said Doolittle of McKinley Hall.
The treatment center performed 122 assessments in March — a record. It performed 99 assessments in April.
Typically the organization does about 70 to 80 assessments per month, she said.
“A lot of people believe Narcan will give permission to continue to use,” Doolittle said, “when research continues to show the opposite. When someone overdoses, it’s pretty scary and they seek out help.”
Last year the facility began using a holistic approach to recovery. With specialized treatment using suboxone, a medication approved for the treatment of opiate dependence that reduces the symptoms of addiction, the program’s retention rate increased from about 3 to 4 percent to about 46 percent.
At the same time, McKinley Hall wants to help inmates leaving the Clark County Jail receive an injection of vivitrol, a drug that blocks alcohol and opiates and stays in the system for 30 days.
It gives people an opportunity to focus on treatment, especially changing behaviors.
McKinley Hall can treat about 115 people at a time, Doolittle said, but it has no more space to expand and add staff. With 35 people on the waiting list for medicated-assisted treatment services, she said the agency is searching for a new location.
“We’re doing our best to expand and be able to accommodate the epidemic in our community,” Doolittle said.
While addicts must make the difficult decision to get clean, Patterson said the community must also have treatment services available, which isn’t always the case due to high demand. The mental health and addiction recovery providers are doing a good job, Patterson said, but don’t have the money to increase capacity.
“It’s almost like making the stars to align to make that happen,” Patterson said.
The community also needs more transitional recovery housing for people who finish treatment programs, Doolittle said. In 2014, the Springfield/Clark County Housing Collaborative reported 64 overall transitional housing units in the community.
“We can put somebody in an eight-week residential program, but if they have nowhere to go when they leave, we just wasted (the treatment),” Doolittle said. “There are some people who have more resources than others, but most don’t.”
Earlier this year, Gemini Reliance, which operates the Maynard House at 2137 Larch St., received approval from the Board of Zoning Appeals to establish a 21-bed transitional housing and community recovery center at a former bingo hall and bowling alley at 2001 Lagonda Ave.
However, the building couldn’t be converted because it proved too costly to fix. The community center planned to move to the basement at St. Raphael’s Church, but couldn’t because it needed sprinkler and alarm systems, Doolittle said. They’re now seeking a new space.
The 21-bed transitional housing portion of that project will instead move to several different scattered sites, which will be similar to the Maynard House.
“We haven’t lost momentum,” Doolittle said. “We’ve got some more things in the work. We have to do it. We can’t say no to this project.”
Over the past five years, 107 men have died of drug overdoses compared to 60 women, according to coroner’s records. But fewer places exist for men to go once they finish treatment, Doolittle said.
“There has to be safe places for the guys to go where it’s structured and there’s support,” she said.
By the numbers
53: The number of people who have died of accidental drug deaths in Clark County in the past 16 months.
21: The number of people who died last year with heroin in their system.
16: The number of accidental drug deaths confirmed between January and April of this year, 12 of which involved fentanyl, a powerful narcotic that’s laced with heroin.
360: The number of Narcan kits used by the Springfield Fire/Rescue Division to revive people from accidental drug overdoses through May 11 of this year, more than a 200 percent increase over the same period in 2014.
Staying with the story
The Springfield News-Sun has written extensively about opiate and heroin problems in Clark County in the past three years, including stories about multiple overdoses in one weekend and efforts to expand treatment options.
Read the full letter that James Scott wrote about the addiction that killed him online at SpringfieldNewsSun.com.