- Michael Cooper Staff Writer
The community has made big strides to eliminate the opioid epidemic, but Springfield and Clark County leaders say it must continue to battle the public health crisis that has killed a record number of people this year.
Clark County has seen 101 suspected drug overdose deaths this year, including 90 confirmed and 11 pending autopsies, Clark County Coroner Dr. Richard Marsh said. The majority have been caused by fentanyl, an illegal synthetic opioid that’s 50 times more powerful than heroin.
“We’re going to be over 100 it appears,” Marsh said.
Of the 101 suspected deaths, 79 happened during the first six months of the year. During that same time period, the Springfield Police Division and Clark County Sheriff’s Office responded to a total of 732 overdoses — nearly 75 percent of the overdoses this year.
The epidemic appears to have slowed in the second half of the year but Marsh said it remains a burden on the community. Other drugs also have started to make a comeback, he said, including cocaine and methamphetamine.
The community could see at any time a spike of fentanyl overdoses like it did earlier this year.
“I hope we don’t but I really can’t predict it,” Marsh said. “And I don’t think anybody else can either … It’s tailed off but we don’t know what the trend is going to be in the future. I hope it stays down.”
Nearly $700,000 in grant money has been awarded this year to pay for several new programs throughout Clark County, including treatment, law enforcement and recovery. President Donald Trump recently declared the drug crisis a public health emergency, meaning more money could be allocated to battle the epidemic.
The effort has been impressive, especially since Springfield and Clark County realize the solution won’t come from outside the community, Springfield Fire/Rescue Division Chief Nick Heimlich said. The results will be measured over the long-term based on addiction and recovery cycles, he said, which often vary over time.
“It’s a very important sign that this community pulled together and was able to put together the things that have happened so far,” he said. “Like everything, the proof is in the pudding. But we’re not running a two-year election cycle on this. It’s long-term.”
About half of the people who died of overdoses never set foot in McKinley Hall substance abuse treatment center, according to drug death review data, McKinley Hall CEO Wendy Doolittle said. Stigma and misinformation in the community about the disease of addiction keep them from seeking treatment, she said.
“We get to see these successes of all these people who are coming through the doors but there’s another set of folks who aren’t making it to treatment,” Doolittle said. “Our issue is that we’re still not bringing people in.”
Springfield resident Jessica Mail hasn’t used heroin or fentanyl since Feb. 15. She had used drugs since she was 14 years old but didn’t start using heroin until about three years ago.
“I was ashamed of my life,” said Mail, now 40. “I fell into a bad crowd. It kept me going left instead of right and everything went downhill … It completely takes your soul. You can’t think for yourself. Every thought that comes over you is the thought of getting high to numb your feelings.”
Mail told herself every day that she wouldn’t use drugs the next day.
“I wanted it but I couldn’t do it,” Mail said. “I wasn’t strong enough to do it.”
On Valentine’s Day, Mail overdosed for the third time in a week — one of nearly 140 overdoses reported that month. She was placed in the intensive care unit at Springfield Regional Medical Center and after seven days was placed in the Clark County Jail for three months. At the time, she didn’t have a clue what she was using, heroin or fentanyl or some other type of deadly substance.
“When I first got there, the only I thing I could think about was how to get that next one,” she said. “I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to deal with life or feelings. I just wanted to go back to what I was used to.”
A week before she was released from jail, Mail said she had a spiritual awakening.
“I could actually hear the birds chirping in my jail cell,” she said. “The desire (to use) was gone but I was scared because I didn’t know where I was going to end up.”
On May 18, Mail left jail and was placed in McKinley Hall’s women’s recovery house, where she said she was taught accountability. She goes to meetings every day and has a sponsor. She’s also using Vivitrol.
She’s since gotten a job at a fast food restaurant and was promoted recently to manager. She’s also rebuilding relationships with her three children and her mother, Mail said.
“It was a lot of growing up (I needed to do) and I still have a long way to go,” she said. “Had I not gone to jail, I may not be here today.”
The community has made strides in several areas this year, especially with law enforcement, said Doolittle, who also chairs the Clark County Substance Abuse Coalition.
Earlier this year, a $213,000 federal grant was used to create a first-of-its-kind safe house in Springfield, providing addicts seeking help a place to go before receiving treatment. The money is also being used to place a therapist and peer support specialist at the hospital who can speak with people who have overdosed, rather than watching them leave the hospital and go back to the same environment.
“It’s huge,” Doolittle said.
The Springfield Police Division also received a $100,000 grant to develop a response team to assist overdose survivors. The grant was used to hire an opiate diversion officer, Meredith Freeman, to work hand-in-hand with treatment specialists to get addicts into treatment.
She’s also tracking people who overdose more than three times but aren’t seeking treatment — allowing them to be charged criminally under the 9-1-1 Good Samaritan Law.
“It’s working really well,” Doolittle said. “She’s really a good thread to link these pieces together.”
The community has also seen an increase in people using Vivitrol, a drug that blocks opioids from interacting with the receptors in the brain and eliminates the experience of feeling high. Of the 105 people in McKinley’s medication-assisted treatment program, 70 percent are using the drug.
At the same time, Doolittle said it’s disheartening the community will finish the year with a record number of drug overdose deaths.
“It’s progressively climbed since 2013, despite all of these efforts,” she said.
People coming back
A year ago, Brad and Melanie Silvus started a Families of Addicts chapter in Springfield. The Dayton-based nonprofit’s mission is to provide support to both individuals and families struggling with addiction and to promote recovery.
“When we first started this, we just wanted to be there to support other people who were going through this tough situation,” he said.
This year, the Springfield chapter has had 365 people attend its weekly Tuesday night meetings, Brad Silvus said. It also earlier this year opened its own facility, the FOA Bridge of Support on West Main Street, to hold smaller group meetings for women and newcomers.
“We’ve got a lot of people coming and a lot of people coming back,” he said. “It’s really exciting. We didn’t expect it to be this big this quick.”
On Dec. 19, the group will celebrate its first anniversary. The group wants to bring more outside agencies into its center to help people, Brad Silvus said.
“The perception is that it has slowed down but the reality is that it’s still going on,” he said. “We want to do anything we can to help.”
As the overdose epidemic has increased this year in Springfield, more help for addicts is coming to the community.
A new outpatient treatment facility, Choices, opened earlier this month on South Burnett Road.
“It’s a rural community and there’s a lot of people who have (drug issues),” said Director Jeanette Limoli, a recovering addict.
While there are several large entities in Clark County, including McKinley Hall, it will take multiple groups to solve the issue, she said. The clinic offers suboxone and an abstinence program, Limoli said. It’s also working on offering Vivitrol and mental health services.
“It’s a big need,” she said. “The problem with rural areas is that there’s not a lot of resources. I figured, ‘Why not Springfield?’ We looked at the demographics and help is needed.”
More resources and more facilities are becoming available to fight the epidemic, Marsh said.
“I’m really optimistic those are going to have an impact,” he said. “People are aware of the issue and that’s have a big impact, too.”
McKinley Hall’s $2.5 million expansion project at the former Pediatric Associates office on Lexington Avenue is expected to open on Jan. 11, Doolittle said. It will nearly double the space at its current center on East High Street.
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The men’s residential treatment program will move to the new facility and increase by two beds, allowing the addition of a 24-hour treatment facility for women and children in the existing center, she said.
The new facility is much-needed because beds are full, Doolittle said, which is a good sign for the community.
The Clark County Substance Abuse Coalition is also in need of a coordinator who will be able to work together with different organizations and increase prevention efforts in schools, Doolittle said.
“We’ve got to find folks who are willing to invest in that position,” she said.
The community must also work with physicians to help addicts who need pain medicine, but can’t use certain medications, she said.
“There’s still a lot of collaboration that needs to happen,” Doolittle said.
The treatment community also faces the loss of Medicaid expansion, she said, which could lead to less dollars for supportive services. That means local levy dollars will be spent on basic treatment services, Doolittle said.
This year, the Springfield Fire/Rescue division administered more than 1,900 doses of Narcan — the drug used to revive overdose victims. That’s more than double the 776 doses used by Springfield medics in 2016.
About 1,660 of those doses were used in the first eight months of the year, which Heimlich said is a sign the epidemic has slowed. Since Sept. 1, the division has administered an average of 64 doses per month through Dec. 10 — a trend that has improved morale among firefighters.
“It sets in motion the ability to believe that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” Heimlich said. “That’s the most important thing because what that generates is hope. Hope is the strongest recovery medicine ever. That helps … It doesn’t mean that it’s over and it doesn’t mean that there’s still not a lot of work to do.”
At the same time, it’s unclear if the downward trend is temporary, he said.
“Everybody who wants to put their money on hope is also cognizant of the fact that they have to hedge their bets,” Heimlich said. “You don’t want to put all of your money on it because if it’s not sustainable, then that’s devastating. Everybody is approaching it from that guarded perspective.”
Addiction isn’t going away, Heimlich said.
“The question is: What did we learn about it this time that allowed it to get this bad … and what can we learn from that to prevent it from achieving this much breadth and depth again?” he said. “That’s the challenge for the community.”
‘We do recover’
Mail didn’t want to hear it at the time but she vividly remembers what Springfield Police Division officer Roger Jenkins said after she overdosed for the first time last February.
“He told me, ‘You’ve got to stop this. Your kids need you,’” Mail said.
Jenkins was on scene each time Mail had overdosed, she said. Mail used his words as motivation to recover, she said. She recently thanked him for helping her.
“He was a big inspiration to me after the smoke cleared,” Mail said. “Without his words, I don’t think I would’ve really sat down and thought about it.”
In jail she lost her car, her home, her children — everything. The only thing she had left was her winter coat, she said.
Mail picked the coat up from the Clark County Jail on Thanksgiving, she said, and found drugs in her pocket — the same drugs that caused an overdose on Feb. 14.
“I brought them (to the recovery house) and I didn’t even know it,” she said.
One of the other women in the house had tried on her coat when she realized the drugs were still there. They immediately flushed the drugs down the toilet, Mail said.
“It was the coolest thing ever,” she said. “I thank God to this day that I actually have a choice … I feel like I have new shoes on and I can just keep walking. I don’t want to look behind me. I know that devil is going to chase me for the rest of my life.”
She would advise people in a similar situation to find someone to help them get treatment.
“We do recover,” she said. “A lot of people think there’s no way out but there really is a way out.”
SPRINGFIELD’S OPIOID WAR