Montgomery County in Southwest Ohio has seen a staggering increase in fatal overdoses since the start of 2017 — an influx so severe the county coroner’s office briefly ran out of room for additional bodies.
“I have not experienced anything like this in my career,” said Montgomery County Coroner’s Office Director Ken Betz, who noted the office sent the extra bodies to local funeral parlors.
“We’ve absolutely seen a spike in deaths due to accidental drug overdose,” Betz said.
The county has faced approximately 54 accidental drug overdose deaths in January alone, and the number of victims in the county soared from 259 in 2015 to approximately 355 in 2016, Betz said.
The opioid epidemic has had a particular impact on Montgomery County, home to Dayton, a city that topped the list of “drugged-out cities” in America in 2016. The crisis has flooded law enforcement and public health officials with more work while draining their funding at the same time.
“We’re an organization that is used to doing four or five forensic exams a day, now doing consistently 10 or 11 day, and the staff is tired,” Betz said. “The doctor is tired, the morgue staff is tired, the investigators are tired. We need some relief, and that’s what we’re looking at right now.”
Drug overdoses have overtaken car crashes as the leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, and some reports have even found a higher percentage of Americans use prescription painkillers than tobacco.
Heroin usage among young Americans has doubled in just the past decade, according to data from the CDC. Fentanyl, a fast-acting synthetic pain reliever that can be 50 times more potent than heroin, may be playing a key role.
“Many of the deceased have a syringe literally in their hand or arm. They inject, and they drop,” Betz said. “There’s some very powerful drugs on the street, and I think the users have no idea what they’re getting. They’re not getting heroin; they’re getting heroin-fentanyl.”
“The ‘underground,’ the ability to purchase fentanyl directly through the mail, is very cheap, very accessible, and people get instantly hooked,” Betz said. “That’s why we’re trying to get it out there, to the public, that there’s some bad stuff in the community killing our citizens.”
Although the proliferation of Narcan, an opiate antidote, and other methods have helped, county coroner data show the overdose death rate has not declined. If the level of overdoses in 2017 stays consistent with the rate from January, Montgomery County alone could push 600 fatalities by year’s end. Betz hopes to see the fight continue.
“We’ve tried television, we’ve tried radio, we’ve got to get into the schools to let folks know how deadly this epidemic is,” Betz said. “Twenty years ago, we had heroin, but there was still day to day existing and working within the community. Now, this is killing the community.”