Just when many in the Mahoning Valley had begun to think the drug scourge plaguing our community, state and nation had finally begun to ebb, distressing news rolls in that opiate-related deaths have taken a new disturbing climb on the roller coaster of lethal drug abuse.
Earlier this week, the Trumbull County Coroner’s Office revealed a 50 percent spike in the number of drug-overdose deaths in the second half of 2018 compared with the first six months of this year. As many readily realize, Trumbull County has stood at the epicenter of the opiate epidemic in our region for about five years now.
The fresh set of data, coupled with credible anecdotal evidence from the field, dampens hopes that the epidemic has neared its end. As such, it also reinforces the need for our community not to let down its collective guard. Indeed, the fight against drug overdoses in general and opiate overdoses and deaths in particular must continue and intensify.
Though the new report is eye-opening in its reversal of an encouraging trend, the data still show a marked decline in total overdose deaths for 2018 over 2017.
Through Nov. 3 of this year, Trumbull County had 61 overdose deaths with an additional seven expected once toxicology tests are concluded. In all of 2017, however, the county had recorded a total of 135 such deaths. Barring a catastrophic surge in deaths this month, 2018 should go down in history as the first year in many that the opiate toll has inched downward. That same trend appears to be holding true in Mahoning and Columbiana counties as well.
Nonetheless, one preventable overdose death is one overdose death too many.
In Ohio, the toll in lost lives and lost productivity has been staggering. More than 500,000 years of life expectancy were lost in Ohio from 2010 to 2016 because of the opioid epidemic, according to a new study conducted by the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health.
That includes approximately 30,000 lost years of life in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties, the report says.
INTENSIFY COORDINATED OFFENSIVE
In order to make a larger dent in the human, economic and social tolls of the epidemic, the multi-pronged strategy that has been key to reining in some of the carnage must continue and intensify. After all, the serious and coordinated offensive on the national, state and local fronts has made a difference in 2018.
Locally, the availability of long-term treatment facilities has expanded. In Trumbull County, commissioners joined officials in many other counties and states who have sued pharmaceutical companies that many regard as complicit in the drug-death trap.
Mahoning County has launched countywide Quick Response Teams comprised of deputy sheriffs, emergency medical services representatives and professional drug counselors. The team contacts OD victims within 24 to 72 hours of their brush with death and leads them to counseling and treatment.
Statewide, officials have raided and closed illicit “pill mills.’’ Taut new laws have been passed to severely limit the prescriptions of opiate painkillers.
In addition, expansive new revenue has been awarded local communities to deal with the crisis. Mahoning and Trumbull counties recently received word they will receive a combined $1.8 million over the next two years to help address workforce issues related to the opioid epidemic.
On the federal level, more than 70 acts have been approved this year that are aimed squarely at taming the opiate epidemic monster. Several of these initiatives were authored by our U.S. senators, Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Rob Portman; and by U.S. Reps. Tim Ryan and Bill Johnson whose districts include the Mahoning Valley. They range from cutting off the supply of fentanyl in this country to assisting victims and families of victims with treatment and other support mechanisms.
Clearly more of the same cooperative teamwork should be prescribed in 2019.
That need is evident by the observations of Lt. Greg Hoso, commander of of the Warren Police Department’s Street Crimes Unit. Though local overdose deaths have dropped this year compared with last year, Hoso says he doesn’t believe illicit drug use itself has dropped. Rather, more people are being saved by naloxone, the opiate overdose antidote whose availability has increased dramatically over the past year.
Given Hoso’s street-wise knowledge of the stubborn epidemic, coupled with the recent resurgence in overdose deaths, victory over the opiate war remains elusive. As a result, the fight on local, state and federal fronts must continue unabated.