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Pandemic-fueled overdose surge can’t be ignored

Over the past 19 months, the nation has focused almost singular attention on the devastating COVID-19 pandemic that has played a part in ending more than 670,000 American lives and infected more than 42 million individuals.

Yet at the same time, another public health crisis — once high atop the national consciousness — has been gaining ferocity, albeit more quietly. That is the nation’s decadelong epidemic of drug overdoses, particularly of killer opiates.

As Ohio Attorney General David Yost put it, “Opioid overdoses might have taken a back seat 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 devastation of which Yost speaks hits close to home. During the first half of 2021, Mahoning County recorded 84 drug-overdose deaths; Trumbull County has logged 67 such deaths. Both are on track to hit record highs this year.

The worsening COVID-19 pandemic actually is aggravating the drug-overdose epidemic, including in our Buckeye state.

Thursday, Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff and his peers reported some Ohio hospitals are reaching breaking points because of soaring coronavirus infections. Some must turn away patients. Considering that emergency rooms often are the first resort for drug-overdose victims, life-saving opportunities for addicts there have become a roll of the dice.

That need for rationing limited and strained health-care resources at the expense of non-COVID-19 patients makes another strong case to maximize responsible use of all available alternative resources to lessen the scope of drug-overdose fatalities.

Fortunately, a new pot of such resources is at hand. Makers and sellers of prescription painkillers soon will begin paying billions of dollars to settle hundreds of lawsuits accusing them of fueling this opioid epidemic.

More than 40 states have agreed to accept $26 billion from Johnson & Johnson and three big drug distributors, to be paid over 18 years. In Ohio and the Mahoning Valley, that translates into sizable assistance.

Ohio and its subdivisions will get about $804.9 million of that settlement. Locally, Mahoning and Trumbull county governments are on track to receive the bulk of the settlement. In the funds’ first distribution, Mahoning could receive up to $2.25 million. Trumbull could receive $2.84 million. Youngstown is expected to cash in on $811,053 and Warren up to $496,367.

Like the surge in financial assistance that local communities are receiving from the federal government to combat COVID-19, it’s critical that local government leaders sharing in the drug settlement use the windfall prudently with an eye focused squarely on achieving maximum assistance to those in need in the short term and on lessening the growing toll of the opiate epidemic in the long term.

Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown said he wants to use the money for health and law-enforcement issues related to the opioid crisis. Girard Mayor James Melfi recommends channeling funds to preventive education. Trumbull County Commissioner Frank Fuda wants to work with fellow commissioners to prioritize the best use of the incoming resources.

We would urge all local beneficiaries of the settlement funding to listen intently to recommendations from key players in the epidemic, including first responders, local health leaders and residents most affected by the opiate epidemic firsthand — residents like Warren’s Dennis J. McGee, who lost his son to a drug overdose several years ago.

“What the city should do is meet with all those affected by opioid addictions — whether it is those who have gotten through the addictions or the loved ones left behind. They should ask what we would like to see done with these funds,” McGee told this newspaper.

McGee is absolutely correct. He and others like him know better than anyone which resources and services would work best to lessen and prevent addictions and deaths.

But for those individuals who today find themselves sinking deeper into the abyss of addiction, they and their loved ones have little time to wait and must reach out to the wide array of resources available now to help them.

In Mahoning County, Project DAWN, a drug education and naloxone (overdose antidote) distribution center, can be reached at 330-270-2855, Ext. 125. In Trumbull County, the Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention is at 330-675-2765, Ext. 119. Many other groups and resources are available as well.

Meanwhile, communities can best use the immediate future engaging in serious dialogues with those closest to the epidemic to ensure the windfalls coming their way will indeed play a role in putting this opiate plague behind us.

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