While Franklin County continues to combat the high number of overdose deaths in recent years there, surrounding areas are seeing spikes in deaths from fentanyl and other opioids as well.
Delaware County has experienced one of the biggest surges in death rates from fentanyl or its chemical derivatives in Ohio, based on preliminary state data.
The county of more than 200,000 had a more than sixfold increase in deaths last year, from three in 2016 to 19 in 2017. The spike surpassed 60 Ohio counties that have reported mortality results to the Ohio Department of Health.
“It’s very scary to lose that many people in one year in our county,” said Delaware County Commissioner Jeff Benton.
Fairfield and Fayette counties had a more than threefold increase: from seven to 23 deaths and six to 22 deaths from fentanyl, respectively.
The percentage increase in Union County (from one to seven deaths) was slightly higher than in Delaware County, but with fewer deaths. Knox County jumped from two to 11 deaths.
Delaware County prides itself on its affluence, quality of life and repeated designation as the healthiest county in the state.
This preliminary data is troubling to many.
“It is absolutely shocking and alarming,” said Delaware County EMS Chief Mike Schuiling. “We have watched (the problem) grow up around us in other parts of the state, and we have been fortunate,” he said. “We don’t want to be foolish and not prepare for it.”
First responders carry naloxone to revive overdose patients, as well as protective suits — including hoods and gloves — to protect themselves.
“This is a major increase to our area,” Schuiling said, noting the much larger volume of overdose patients who survive.
In Union County, fentanyl-laced drugs, such as heroin or methamphetamine, are known on the street for their potency, said Lance Emberling, an investigator in the coroner’s office.
“They’re using this in everything now because (users) want it and it’s such a ‘great’ high. It’s a cheap high, but a short-lasting high.”
Emberling has been told that dealers haphazardly blend the drug with others to increase potency, a business model that kills customers.
“They just dump it in and send it out to the streets and wait for results, for people to say ‘that’s pretty good’ or somebody dies. It’s definitely not a scientific method.”
“Once they start ‘cutting’ this drug, it’s really kind of Russian roulette,” said Dr. Mark Hickman, the Delaware County coroner. “The public needs to know.”
Other coroners have taken notice.
“There’s no question that it’s a significant increase, percentagewise,” said Dr. Kent Harshbarger, chief forensic officer for the Ohio Coroners Association and the Montgomery County coroner.
Montgomery, twice the size of Delaware County, jumped from about 340 deaths to 560 deaths, about 90 percent related to fentanyl lacing.
Local officials credit interdiction efforts and prosecution for keeping deaths as low as they have been.
“Delaware County has been a fairly untapped source for drug dealers,” said Delaware County Prosecutor Carol O’Brien. “You have to go after these predators who are killing our citizens.
“They know that this eventually is going to kill someone … this is not some miracle drug.”
The scourge, she said, is tied to “a lot more fentanyl coming in from China, Mexico, in the mail, from the border.”
Overall overdose rates of about 1.8 per 1,000 Delaware County residents in 2016 attracted praise from the Ohio attorney general’s office, said Sheriff Russell Martin. But he said dealers constantly seek to change that.
“Don’t underestimate their business savvy … how nimble they are to introduce new drugs on short notice,” Martin said. “I am not surprised that it has occurred.
“The challenge then for law enforcement and public health is how quickly you can adjust to the threat and the risk.”
The spike is an opportunity, Martin said, “to keep front and center a discussion about the risk of these illegal and deadly drugs, discussions that people have to have around the dinner table.”
The toll on families, the economy and neighborhoods is hard to calculate, O’Brien said.
“Every person who dies is a promise lost. They are a mother, brother, daughter, sister, son. … It’s a heart-wrenching subject.”