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Lingering pandemic impact, rise in fentanyl lead to worrisome rise in opioid overdose deaths

Local groups work to distribute more Narcan
Narcan
Posted at 6:02 PM, Jul 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-19 19:29:39-04

CUYAHOGA COUNTY, Ohio — New numbers from the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office shows at least 304 people have died in 2021 so far from heroin, fentanyl, cocaine or a combination of these deadly drugs.

Projections put Cuyahoga County at 750 deaths for the year, which would exceed the record set in 2017, at 727 reported deaths.

Scott Osiecki serves as the CEO of the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) Board of Cuyahoga County, and said the pandemic helped contribute to the recent rise.

“[People are] dealing with the isolation they felt, they’re dealing with the loss of jobs,” he explained.

The numbers trend in the wrong direction after 2020, a year that saw a 5% decrease in opioid deaths in Cuyahoga County compared to 2019, dropping to 553 deaths compared to 582 deaths a year before.

The drug behind the most overdose deaths in Cuyahoga County is fentanyl, where 217 people have died since January.

“They’re not looking to take fentanyl,” Osiecki said. “They’re not even looking to take an opioid, and it is in there and that’s what’s causing the opioid deaths to increase.”

Earlier this month, News 5 highlighted how ADAMHS was working with MetroHealth to install 100 “NaloxBoxes” throughout the city to help curb the rising numbers. Each box comes equipped with two doses of the lifesaving opioid reversal drug, Naloxone, known as Narcan.

“We’re placing them in public buildings, homeless shelters, hunger centers, rehabilitation centers and other businesses,” Osiecki explained.

It’s a push occurring all over Northeast Ohio.

Those at Thrive Peer Support, which offers behavioral health services and substance abuse treatment, continue to keep busy with an almost empty supply closet where boxes of naloxone would normally be stored.

“That means people are wanting to take it,” harm reduction specialist Ashley Rosser said. “They're hearing of our program and if they're living with someone who is using drugs or a person recovering in their home, they want to take it home.”

“Last year we gave out 500 kits of Narcan,” project manager Bethany Friedrichsen added. “This year through our outreach efforts alone in Cuyahoga County, we’ve given out more than 1,500 kits in the community.”

With the pandemic inching toward a close, experts said they’re hopeful the number of opioid overdose deaths will continue to fall for the rest of the year. In the meantime, the push continues to remove the stigma surrounding carrying naloxone and keeping it available in convenient locations.

“The sooner you get that into somebody’s system, the more likely they are to survive and not have brain damage from their overdose,” Friedrichsen said.

If you’re in crisis or need a referral to services, you can call the Cuyahoga County 24-hour suicide prevention, mental health/addiction crisis, information and referral hotline at (216) 623-6888.