Soaring death toll of US opioid epidemic demands more aggressive offensive


In the ongoing war against drug abuse in our region and nation, the increasingly powerful opiate agents continue to hold the higher ground.

Newly released year-end casualty tolls illustrate that the heroin and opiate epidemic shows no signs of significant retreat anytime soon. That makes it imperative for local, state and federal forces committed to conquering the scourge to double up in intensity and weaponry. Clearly, there’s not a moment to waste.

In Mahoning County, the coroner’s office dealt with 12 drug-overdose deaths last month alone, which represents a 300 percent increase over the January 2016 death toll. For the entire year, a record 91 lives in the county were snuffed out by overdoses, most from opioid abuse.

Dr. Joseph Ohr, forensic pathologist and deputy county coroner, made this sobering observation to the board of county commissioners last week: “When I see 12 people who have died, that’s a lot. I predict a lot of heroin deaths this year.”

In slightly smaller Trumbull County, opiates are taking an even higher toll. The tentative number of 96 deaths – with several others pending – represents yet another increase over the previous year, when 87 such deaths were recorded. There’s little doubt that Trumbull County will retain its rank in the top 10 of Ohio’s 88 counties in opiate deaths per capita.

Across the state, health officials report about 3,000 overdose deaths in 2016 or about eight each and every day of the year. And just last Friday, a report from the U.S.-China Economic Security Review Commission tagged the Buckeye State as the nation’s No. 1 state for use of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, often laced into drug dealers’ heroin supplies.

In the face of such grisly and discouraging data, it is difficult indeed to find hope. But to be sure, more aggressive attention and beefed-up resources devoted to stemming the epidemic have likely saved lives. And in Trumbull County, the rate of increase in OD deaths slowed markedly between 2015 and 2016.

But clearly much work remains undone in order to make headway in easing this statewide and national crisis.

A metaphor enunciated by Trumbull County Coroner Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk is particularly apt in describing the alarming scope of OD deaths in his county. “If the homicide rate was [nearly 100], you’d have the national guard patrolling the streets,” he said.

Of course, invoking martial law would do little to rein in the epidemic, but rigidly focused and adequately funded strategies must be expanded if we are to have even the most remote hopes of lowering the OD death tolls in our community, state and nation this year.

EXPAND NALOXONE, CHOKE FENTANYL SUPPLY

Two major initiatives – among many valuable ones on the table – call out for swift action to deal with two of the most pressing needs: lowering the opiate death toll and choking off the supply of fentanyl.

Clearly, the overdose antitode known as naloxone or Narcan has proved its value in reducing the number of deaths. Numbers from Trumbull County speak to the impressive scope of its life-saving capability.

In 2016, 134 victims of overdoses recovered fully after having been treated with naloxone, which is now available to most police departments and public health agencies. Without the miracle drug, the county’s 2016 death toll likely would have more than doubled to more than 230.

Toward those ends of staunching the bleeding, increasing naloxone availability must be a No. 1 priority. U.S. Reps. Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th, and David Joyce of Russell, R-14th, recognize as much and have introduced the STOP OD Act of 2017. It would increase the availability of the opiate reversal drug for first responders and expand naloxone training. It merits speedy approval.

A second prime initiative must be controlling the flow of fentanyl into the United States and Ohio. Fentanyl, known to be 50 times more potent that heroin, played a leading role in the skyrocketing OD death toll last year. Only 23 percent of the nearly 87 deaths in Trumbull County in 2015 were tied to fentanyl. In 2016, that percentage zoomed to 68 percent, including even more powerful varieties known as carfentanyl, an elephant tranquilizer that is 100 times more potent than heroin.

All available reinforcements will be needed to make those and other initiatives succeed. Toward that end, officials from the Donald Trump administration to county commissioners in the Mahoning Valley must make slashing the opioid death toll a high-level priority throughout 2017.

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