Personal, public moves needed to end opiate surge

Though overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed 19,000 Ohioans and infected more than 1 million others over the past 15 months, a simultaneous and relentless epidemic refuses to loosen its monstrous grip on our state and nation.

In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has nourished and strengthened the opiate addiction epidemic in Ohio and elsewhere. After a couple years of slowly declining deaths and emergency-room visits from opiate overdoses, trend lines jettisoned wildly upward last year.

Ironically, a key part of the regimen to control and limit the spread of COVID-19 is the same ingredient many cite as a contributor to the surge of overdose deaths.

“Isolation is needed to stop COVID-19, but it makes the opioid crisis worse,” said Gary Mendell, founder of Shatterproof, a group that seeks to reduce stigma around opiate-use disorders.

Mendell is correct. Isolation breeds depression, and depression increases the likelihood that sufferers will reach out for illicit drugs to dull the pain.

The proof is in the data. Nationally, overdose deaths soared to about 90,000 in 2020, according to the Commonwealth Fund and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s up from 70,630 in 2019 and represents the largest single-year percentage increase in the past two decades.

Data for Ohio and the Mahoning Valley are equally disturbing.

Ohio Attorney General David Yost, in concert with his Scientific Committee on Opioid Prevention and Education (SCOPE), found the death rate for opioid overdoses statewide at 11.01 per 100,000 residents in the second quarter of 2020 — the highest rate in 10 years.

“Opioid overdoses might have taken a backseat in our minds last year because of COVID-19, but make no mistake: Ohioans are dying at a devastating rate because of opioid overdoses,” the attorney general said.

Sadly, those numbers are even more morose in the Mahoning Valley.

According to Yost’s analysis from 2010 to 2020, Mahoning County’s rate of overdose deaths rose from 2.0 per 100,000 people in the second quarter of 2010 to 15.4 per 100,000 in 2020.

In Trumbull County, the trend lines are even more gloomy. Overdose deaths jumped from 7.6 per 100,000 in the second quarter of 2010 to 17.1 per 100,000 in the 2020 quarter.

In both counties, the numbers jumped to new heights after two straight years of modest declines. In both counties as well, the most prevalent drug consumed in OD deaths continued to be fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that packs a mean and often fatal punch. It’s known to be about 100 times more potent than morphine.

The gush of fatalities is particularly troubling as it comes at the same time as access to naloxone, the antidote to opiate seizures and deaths, has expanded substantially.

Because opiate addiction is a disease that can affect all of us and that requires short- and long-term treatment, it cannot be viewed as someone else’s problem or as the act of a depraved criminal mind.

Addiction must be viewed rather as a societal problem that requires everyone’s full cooperation to solve. Toward that end, help is at hand for drug users as well as their supportive family and friends.

In Trumbull County, call the county combined health district at 330-675-2590, Ext. 3, to acquire Narcan; or the Coleman Access Center at 330-392-1100 for screening and placement into treatment or detox.

In Mahoning County, reach out to Project DAWN (Deaths Avoided With Naloxone) at 330-270-2855, Ext. 125, for Narcan and information on similar services.

To be sure, if we are ever to end this insidious epidemic, personal responsibility, coupled with a strong support network, will play key roles. Effective public policy also can prove beneficial.

That’s why Republican Yost and Democrat Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel exercised the power of their pen last week in writing to members of Congress, urging them to pass recently introduced legislation called the FIGHT (Federal Initiative to Guarantee Health by Targeting) Fentanyl Act of 2021. That legislation, introduced in the U.S. Senate by Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and in the U.S. House by Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, last month would permanently classify fentanyl-related substances as Schedule 1 drugs, which would criminalize the manufacturing, distribution or possession of them.

The FIGHT Fentanyl Act clearly has potential to help curb the rise in OD deaths. Such public policy, coupled with personal engagement and responsibility, can help guide us out of the bleak darkness of both public health crises for good.



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