Overdose deaths tick down, but will it last?

Experts say it’s too early to say if crisis has peaked.

After a steady drumbeat of increasing numbers of accidental drug overdoses, Montgomery County got a rare bit of good news last month: the death total took a significant dip.

After seeing the number of deaths soar to 80 in May, the July number dropped all the way to 38, the lowest number for a month this year.

“Right now it’s too early to tell if there is any trend there,” said Dan Suffoletto, spokesman for the health district. “We would need to see a much longer period of time for the numbers to go down before we would call that a significant trend.”

But, said Suffoletto, “Even one life that’s saved is meaningful and impactful.”

The opioid addiction crisis that is sweeping the nation has hit Ohio hard, and in recent weeks the state has drawn national attention from CNN, the New York Times, NBC News and England’s Daily Mail.

NBC called Montgomery County the “most opioid-addicted county” in the nation, though an investigation into that claim by this newspaper found other counties with similarly high numbers.

Accidental drug overdose deaths in Montgomery County January 1
to August 10, 2017
Month Total
January 65
February 67
March 53
April 71
May 80
June 51
July 38
August (to date) 12
Source: Montgomery County Coroner

Still, whether the county is number one or not even in the top 10 nationally, no one disputes that the problem here is serious. And until recently, a bad problem had got even worse.

RELATED: Is Montgomery County the nation’s leader for drug ODs? No one knowsThis year has been a brutal year for accidental drug overdoses, mostly from opioids — painkilling drugs that are highly addictive. Officials blame the wide availability of fentanyl and its analogues, such as carfentanil, which are hundreds of times more potent than heroin.

So far this year, 437 people have died of accidental drug overdoses in Montgomery County alone, already outpacing the 2016 total of 349, according to the health district data. 

Montgomery County Coroner Kent Harshbarger said he has always believed the overdose numbers would begin to decline, though he gave a pretty depressing reason for his prediction.

“At some point with the rate of rise (in overdoses) that we’re at, the users wouldn’t be left in five years,” Harshbarger said.

Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer said he thinks July’s dip is “an anomaly,” though he believes cutting supply and demand, as well as prevention efforts, will eventually pay off.

Plummer met with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in Columbus earlier this month and said he was told enforcement efforts here will get a boost from the federal government, which is adding prosecutors to go after dealers, as well as boosting resources provided by the Drug Enforcement Agency and Homeland Security.

On Thursday President Donald Trump said he planned to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency, which could further open funding opportunities.

A number of local initiatives have already been launched, and were outlined during a town hall Wednesday held at the Christian Life Center in Butler Twp.

RELATED: Overdose crisis: CNN again makes Montgomery County the national example for filmmakers and media

Many in attendance said the crisis is taking a toll on families and whole neighborhoods.

“I’m very interested in how we can resolve this opioid issue,” said Angela Taylor of Montgomery County. “It concerns me about the effect it is having on our communities.”

Al Ralston, associate pastor of United Community Brethren in Dayton, said solving the crisis will involve hard work and hard choices, including forcing doctors to prescribe fewer opioids.

But Easter Montgomery, 65, of Trotwood, said efforts to control how often opioids are prescribed have gone too far. She said she has arthritis and a brain tumor but her doctor won’t give her the opioids she needs to control her pain.

She said it leaves senior citizens no option but to “go to the streets.”

Bruce Langos, chairman of the Montgomery County Drug-Free Coalition, said rules limiting prescriptions are designed to try to stem addiction. He said the problem touches people at all economic levels and is partly why companies can’t find workers who can pass a drug test.

Clayton Councilman Kenny Henning said it saddens him that “so many people have to be in that comfortably numb state.”

“It’s scary to think that the pilot in Centerville was addicted to it,” Henning said, referring to Spirit Airlines pilot Brian Halye, who died along with his wife of an overdose of cocaine and carfentanil. “It’s scary to think hospital employees are addicted to it. It’s scary to think that educators are addicted to it.”

RELATED: Centerville pilot, wife OD from cocaine, carfentanil, autopsy showsHenning said he believes a coordinated anti-addiction push in the county will help in the long run.

Montgomery County Commissioner Dan Foley said the Community Overdose Action Team (COAT) is working on the problem and the county provided funding for additional addiction recovery services for addicted jail inmates. The county also is working with area hospitals to develop a Sobering Center/Crisis Intervention Unit to take pressure off the jail and emergency rooms, he said.

RELATED: Opioid crisis persists despite funding burstLori Erion, founder of FOA Families of Addicts, said the July dip is “encouraging news” and shows that “the hard work that the county is doing is making a difference.”

She said programs making the antidote drug Narcan more available have helped, along with getting more people into addiction treatment. She also said word is getting around in the addict community about how lethal the new batch of drugs are.

“I feel like there are a whole lot of people who are taking note that all their friends are dying,” Erion said. “I’m sure that there’s a lot of people that are using out there that are full of fear. They have a reason to live — they have children and family — and they don’t want to become another statistic.”

Those who deal with addiction acknowledge there is one obstacle that will be difficult to overcome: the number of addicts who choose to ignore the danger.

“Addiction is a medical condition that changes brain function,” said Dr. Tammy Lundstrom, chief medical officer for Premier Health. “In addition, no one thinks it will happen to them — the psychological and physical dependence is so strong that individuals tend to rationalize as to why they are ‘different.’ They think the most severe consequences of drug addiction won’t happen to them.”

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