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Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner issues alert after 12 died from suspected overdoses in 2 days

Posted at 12:39 PM, Nov 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-08 23:15:09-05

CLEVELAND — The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office has issued a public health alert after 12 people died from suspected overdoses in Cuyahoga County within a two-day period.

“This recent trend of clustered overdoses is alarming. There were an additional four on Thursday of last week. It remains to be seen what the cause is, but the public should be aware that there is a serious threat to their lives if they are using street drugs right now in Cuyahoga County,” said medical examiner Dr. Thomas Gilson.


The medical examiner said expedited forensic testing is underway to confirm which drug or drugs caused the recent spike.

Gilson said at its current rate, Cuyahoga County is expected to have at least 700 more overdose deaths this year.

Willoughby Hills native Cathy Lawley waged a war on drugs nearly two years ago when her son died.

“My son, Michael Justin Biellow, he was 31 when he died on March 23, 2020. It was literally the day that Ohio was going to close down,” she said.

Lawley said her son struggled with a drug problem on and off for years.

“This pattern went on, but he hated his life that way and really fought to keep himself clean and work towards being a good citizen and having a good job,” she said.

He died on March 23, 2020, but Lawley said it wasn’t from a heroin overdose, it was due to fentanyl poisoning.

“Michael died of pure carfentanil and fentanyl. There was nothing else in his system,” she said. “My son didn't go out and look for fentanyl or carfentanil. He didn't want to die. He made a mistake and because you make a mistake, doesn't mean you need to die. We don't call that overdose. We call that fentanyl poisoning.”

She said it’s important people understand deaths are not just happening among people with a drug problem, now, it’s happening among recreational drug users or people experimenting for the first time.

“Even those that are using drugs recreationally, whether it’s cocaine, whether it is ecstasy, whether it’s heroin or anything you can think of, even Percocet and Xanax,” said Lawley. “They get a pill that looks just like it, and it’s not, it’s a pressed fenta-pill.”

If you or anyone you know is actively using or recovering from opioid addiction, contact Project DAWN at 216-778-5677. Those who are eligible can receive free Naloxone kits.

Aubrey Montgomery works for Project DAWN at MetroHealth’s office of Opioid Safety.

“We are seeing a lot of people asking for naloxone or Narcan. We know that people are using it and we know that it is working,” said Montgomery.

Project DAWN has sites throughout the county that provide free naloxone and fentanyl testing strips. Montgomery said this year in Cuyahoga County there have been 1,189 reversals of overdose death due to naloxone.

But a surge has them worried.

“We continue to warn people and warn our clients,” she said. “We also continue to give out fentanyl test strips so you can come into the RV mobile unit on West 25th Street that we operate on Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and you can get fentanyl test strips from us any time. We always urge people to test before you use.”

Lawley said access to naloxone is important, legislation, and securing U.S. borders is important when it comes to fighting fentanyl, but she wants to change the stigma around drug deaths, too.

“We could talk about legislation and changes and holding people accountable, and that does prevent to some degree, but raising awareness and making sure people understand that this is not about drug users,” she said.

Here’s a list of Project DAWN sites in Cuyahoga County:

AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland

2829 Euclid Avenue

Cleveland, OH 44115


*This program has a local mail-order service.

Circle Health Services

12201 Euclid Avenue

Cleveland, OH 44106


Cleveland Department of Health Thomas F. McCafferty Health Center

4242 Lorain Avenue

Cleveland, OH 44113


Cleveland Emergency Medical Services

1701 Lakeside Avenue

Cleveland, OH 44114


Hispanic UMADAOP

3305 West 25th Street

Cleveland, OH 44109

216 459-1222

Homeless Hookup Cleveland

29201 Aurora Road

Solon, OH 44139


*This program has a local mail-order service.

MetroHealth Project DAWN Expanded Mobile Unit RV

3370 West 25th Street

Cleveland, OH 44109


Northern Ohio Recovery Association

1400 East 55th Street

Cleveland, OH 44103


University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center— Main Campus

1110 Euclid Avenue

Cleveland, OH 44106


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