Fentanyl drives rise in area overdoses
Isolation, stress of virus also contributing factors
A reported spike in overdoses in Trumbull County in the months of May and June seems to be linked to fentanyl — a potent synthetic opioid that can cause respiratory distress — according to local health experts.
The Trumbull County Combined Health District and Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board recently pointed to a spike in overdoses in the months of May and June. Data from the mental health board shows an increase in overdoses per month. The month of January showed 56 overdoses, while May saw 90 and June saw 107.
From Jan. 1 to May 25 this year, the Trumbull County coroner confirmed 37 accidental overdose deaths — and of those, 14 occurred in May.
Accidental overdose deaths this year all have one thing in common: the presence of fentanyl, usually mixed with other substances.
“You can’t see, taste or smell fentanyl, and there is no ‘safe’ drug use,” April Caraway, Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board executive director, said.
Fentanyl is an opioid similar to morphine — but 50 to 100 times more potent, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
In prescription form, fentanyl is used to treat patients with severe or chronic pain, but it also is made and sold illegally. The drug is addictive because of its potency, and is often mixed with other illegal drugs because it takes little to produce a high with fentanyl — making it a cheaper option for dealers.
Another factor that may play a role in the climbing number of overdoses is the isolation and stresses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and related shutdowns. Caraway said though it is difficult to know if illegal drug use has gone up, there has been a marked increase in alcohol abuse.
“Treatment for people with alcohol addiction has increase since the beginning of COVID-19. More people are using alcohol as a response to the anxiety and depression they are experiencing due to job losses, isolation and fears about the virus.”
Caraway said isolation especially is dangerous for illegal drug users, especially with fentanyl at play.
“Since crack, meth and heroin all contain fentanyl now, the likelihood of overdose is very high. When someone uses drugs alone, no one is there to call 911 or administer Narcan if they overdose.”
Brenda Heidinger, associate director of the Mahoning County Mental Health and Recovery Board, said the pandemic also may have led some people who were in recovery to relapse in the face of anxiety and isolation.
Mahoning County also has shown an apparent increase in overdoses, though it is not as dramatic as in Trumbull County, according to Heidinger.
The county has recorded 41 accidental overdose deaths from January to May this year– slightly above the usual 30 to 35 for that time frame, Heidinger said.
“We do know almost all the deaths this year have included fentanyl,” Heidinger said.
Visits to the emergency department for overdoses and withdrawals, however, are trending slightly down from past years. Through May there have been 295 visits to the emergency department. In 2018 and 2019, there were just over 800 emergency department visits — showing this year’s numbers are, so far, slightly behind.
This year, numbers for May indicate 54 visits to the emergency department for overdose and withdrawal. Last year, 55 visits were in May, and in 2018 there were 67 visits in May.
“Compared to other counties, our numbers are not increasing in the same way,” Heidinger said, pointing to the implementation of a program that puts peer recovery specialists in the emergency room with overdose patients. The peers have lived the experience and work to get patients into treatment.
Heidinger said she believes the program has been successful.
“We know a lot of people are getting connected to services and we know a lot of people are going into treatment,” Heidinger said.
Data shows Trumbull overdoses and overdose fatalities are concentrated mostly in Warren and Niles, but overdoses have occurred all over the county.
According to the mental health board, 49 percent of all fatal and non-fatal overdoses in the county this year occurred in the ZIP codes 44483, 44484 and 44485, which represent a large part of Warren city and sections of Howland and Champion townships. The Niles-Weathersfield 44446 ZIP has seen 14 percent of overdoses this year, while all other county ZIP code areas represent lower percentages.
Residents of Warren city account for 16 accidental overdose deaths this year, most of which occurred in April and May, according to the Trumbull County Coroner’s office. Niles residents account for five overdose deaths and Southington residents account for two overdose deaths.
Residents of Austintown, Cleveland and Norwalk also are included in Trumbull County’s accidental overdose death count because they died in the county.
Trumbull overdose deaths range in age from 21 to 68. Caucasians account for 32 overdose deaths and African Americans the other five.
Including non-fatal instances, 67 percent of county overdoses were by men while 33 percent were by women.
Through May, 2019 saw 48 overdose deaths. In the same time frame, 23 accidental overdose deaths occurred in 2018 and 46 deaths in 2017.
Currently, 11 potential overdose deaths are pending toxicology results at the Trumbull coroner’s office.