By JORDYN GRZELEWSKI
Although final numbers are not yet available, preliminary data indicate the Mahoning Valley’s opioid crisis did not abate in 2017.
Recently, the Mahoning County Coroner’s Office had confirmed 114 drug-overdose deaths for 2017, up from 92 confirmed for 2016. The Trumbull County Coroner’s Office has confirmed 95 drug-overdose deaths for 2017, with another 36 suspected. That total of 131 is up from 107 confirmed drug-overdose deaths in 2016.
The number of fatal overdoses in both counties has risen steadily over the past several years, and is increasingly driven by synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, which is about 100 times more potent than heroin.
“We had [approximately] 20 more [fatal overdoses] than 2016, so we’re definitely not going in the right direction yet,” said April Caraway, executive director of the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board.
“Yes, we are seeing more deaths. One more death is too many,” said Brenda Heidinger, associate director of the Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board.
The number of fatal overdoses represents a mere fraction of the total number of overdoses treated in 2017. Nearly 2,500 overdoses were treated in emergency rooms in Mahoning and Trumbull counties.
In Mahoning County, emergency rooms received 1,241 visits from patients whose reason for treatment was drug-related, according to data provided by the Mahoning County District Board of Health. The largest share of those patients (32.5 percent) were in the 30-39 age range, and 62 percent were men.
The story was similar in Trumbull County, where emergency rooms treated an estimated 1,254 overdoses. There, 63 percent of overdose victims were male. People between age 20 and 30 represented approximately 37 percent of overdoses, with people between age 31 and 40 representing 31 percent.
Mahoning County data show the largest number of these patients were from Boardman, with many also from Liberty and Austintown.
In Trumbull County data show the largest share of overdoses, 22 percent, occurred in the 44483 ZIP code, which represents part of the city of Warren.
What the data don’t capture is the number of overdoses where emergency services were not used.
A clear lesson can be drawn from comparing total number of overdoses to fatal overdoses, Caraway said.
“This is why I’m always out there saying, ‘Everybody needs to carry naloxone,’” she said of the medication that revives people from an opioid overdose. “It’s saving lives.”
Caraway also pointed out another statistic, hoping to dispel the myth the same people are being revived again and again with naloxone, which many local law-enforcement agents carry.
Of the people Warren police revived with naloxone in 2017, only 21 were revived two times, and one person was revived four times. Warren police used 165 naloxone kits last year.
“It’s not what public perception thinks it is – which scares me, because that means there are new users every day,” Caraway said.
Another illuminating bit of information, Caraway said, is the day of the week on which overdoses occurred. In both Mahoning and Trumbull counties, overdoses were pretty evenly spread out on each day of the week.
In Trumbull County, 147 occurred on a Sunday; 160 on a Monday; 197 on a Tuesday; 195 on a Wednesday; and 198 on a Thursday, compared with 198 on a Friday and 159 on a Saturday.
“I want people to see that this is not people partying on Fridays and Saturdays who are overdosing,” Caraway said. “It’s any day of the week. It’s not that people are using to get high. It’s that they’re using to function.”
Fatal overdoses in Mahoning and Trumbull counties last year had a few things in common, experts said.
Although the data are not yet finalized, experts said most victims had multiple drugs in their system and fentanyl was seen in many cases. A recent report from the Trumbull County Coroner’s Office listed 45 poly-drug cases, which represents 34 percent of the total.
The coroner’s office also reported seeing an increase in carfentanil, a fentanyl analog that is approximately 100 times more powerful than fentanyl itself.
“Those synthetic drugs are much more prevalent than just heroin,” Caraway said.
“Fentanyl in the drug supply is a major issue,” Heidinger said.
She said she has heard anecdotal reports of fentanyl being mixed with drugs that users might not expect, such as cocaine and marijuana.
Caraway reported seeing more cases of people mixing cocaine and opioids. Although people might believe cocaine would counteract the opioid, that’s not the case, as opioids slow the user’s breathing.
“When you stop breathing, the cocaine on board isn’t going to keep you alive,” she said.
Something that has remained constant: How people are getting addicted. Experts agree, and research suggests that 80 percent of Americans using illicit opioids such as heroin first used prescription opioids.
Despite the grim numbers, officials in Mahoning and Trumbull counties point to a few encouraging signs.
Caraway cited the results from recent school surveys, which found “reported usage and education and attitudes about it are all going in the right direction,” she said.
Her agency also has increased the number of schools providing prevention education, she said.
Heidinger also pointed out a positive trend.
“We have, in Mahoning County, kind of slowed the number of deaths,” she said. “If you look at the overall county ranking, we’ve moved down the overall ranking. While we have more deaths, they aren’t growing as quickly as other areas. Part of that is, we’ve put more programs in place to try to catch people.”
She noted, for example, the start of a quick-response team by the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office. The QRT, which began in October, tries to get people into treatment quickly after they experience an overdose.
As for how to turn the tide of the epidemic, Heidinger said: “We keep working on the programs we’re working on. We make sure treatment is available for people. We continue to try to catch people” who have had an overdose to get them into treatment.
Caraway said: “We just gotta keep tackling it from all sides: Law enforcement, stop it from coming into our country, and the education.”