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Medical examiner data shows resurgence in fatal carfentanil overdoses in Cuyahoga County

Posted at 6:25 PM, Feb 05, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-06 08:01:35-05

CLEVELAND — At first, it was prescription painkillers. Then came heroin and fentanyl to follow. Now, the fourth poison wave hitting Cuyahoga County causing fatal overdose after fatal overdose, is carfentanil. The preliminary data for 2019 shows the resurgence of fatal carfentanil overdoses after a significant decline in 2018, according to the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Based on data collected through December 31, 2019, there were 220 overdose deaths associated with carfentanil, according to the medical examiner’s office most recent data. This marked a 10 fold increase over the 24 carfentanil overdose deaths in 2018. The first death attributed to carfentanil occurred in 2016, according to medical examiner’s office data.

County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Gilson said the recent surge of carfentanil deaths can likely be attributed to more foreign production of the deadly opiate, which is said to be 10,000 times more powerful than morphine. The drug was originally synthesized as an elephant tranquilizer.

“When you talk to law enforcement the idea is that back in 2018, carfentanil got scheduled. In other words, it was listed as a drug that is illegal,” Gilson said. “A lot of the production of it fell off in China, where it had been coming from. Now we think it’s probably coming up from south of the border, Mexico.”

According to medical examiner’s office data, carfentanil deaths accounted for more than a third of all drug overdose deaths in 2019. Six additional cases are still pending. In December, there were fatal 45 fatal overdoses due to heroin, fentanyl or fentanyl analogs in December alone. In the final month of 2019, The victim's ages ranged from 16 to 67 and the majority of victims were white males.

However, CCMEO data shows the rate of African American deaths involving fentanyl is double that of 2016.

“When you look at numbers, we still have fentanyl as a big problem. We have cocaine as a problem but when I pull carfentanyl from those drugs, they have relatively plateaued. That says to me, now my driver, my really bad actor behind the scenes, is carfentanil,” Dr. Gilson said. “I never really think the opioid crisis stops being an emergency. It concerns me that we get deadened to the fact that over the last three years, each of those years we had over 600 people die.”

The statistics would likely be even higher if not for a 2015 change in state law, which allowed Naloxone – better known as Narcan – to be sold without a prescription. According to a new study from the University of Cincinnati, the dispensing of Narcan has increased 2,328% since 2015.