By Amanda Garrett
The opioid crisis that’s gripping much of the U.S. may finally be loosening in Summit County.
Both the number of overdoses and overdose deaths here plunged in 2018, according to statistics presented to the county Opiate Task Force in December.
“I’m certainly more hopeful than at any time in the past,” said Jerry Craig, executive director of the county’s Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board, said Thursday. “I think we’re on the waning end of the opiate crisis.”
He cautioned, however, that Summit County still has an opioid problem. Overdose numbers remain above a base line established before a wave of prescription painkillers addiction hit, followed by subsequent waves of heroin and synthetic opioid use and addiction.
Through mid-December, Summit County hospital emergency rooms reported 1,289 visits for drug overdoses. That’s a decline of more than 1,000 from 2017 when there were 2,312 visits and 2016 — the year Summit County Public Health began tracking hospital numbers — when there were 2,431 visits.
The decline in overdose deaths is even steeper.
In 2016, 340 people died in Summit County after overdosing on drugs. Overdose deaths dipped to 269 in 2017.
At the end of November, the Summit County Medical Examiner’s office reported investigating 89 suspected overdoses deaths in 2018.
Craig said he and others on the opiate task force at the time hoped Summit County may end the year with fewer than 100 suspected overdose deaths. That didn’t happen. But the number is just slightly over by four or five, less than half those who died in 2017.
The final numbers won’t be in for months because of a lag time in toxicology testing. But overdose deaths have dropped in other Ohio counties, too.
To the north, the Cuyahoga County medical examiner said overdose deaths decreased to 560 in 2018, compared to 727 in 2017, Cleveland.com reported.
And to the southwest, in Montgomery County — where Dayton had the distinction of being named the U.S. overdose capital in 2017 — overdose deaths dropped by nearly half to about 294 in 2018 compared with 566 in 2017.
That prompted a New York Times story about Dayton that carried the headline: “This city’s overdose deaths have plunged. Can others learn from it?”
Officials there — like in Summit County — have built a comprehensive strategy aimed at reaching out to opiate users. They offer recovery services, support after treatment ends and the drug naloxone to keep friends and family alive if they use and overdose.
In Summit County, public health officials, working with police and others, have also launched quick-response teams that visit the homes of those who overdose to offer services.
In 2018, they also started passing out fentanyl testing strips. Users can dip the strips into street drugs they intend to use to see if they contain fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller 50 times stronger than heroin that has been blamed for many overdoses and deaths.
And last year Summa Barberton Hospital’s emergency room — which sits in the middle of zip codes hit hardest by overdoses — began providing medication-assisted treatment and other services to those seeking help for an overdose.
The pilot program — supported by United Way Summit County and others — provide solutions to other barriers to treatment, too, including lack of transportation, child care and housing and peer support.
Barberton is seeing extraordinary results. About 83 percent of people remain on the medication-assisted treatment, said Jim Mullen, president and CEO of United Way of Summit County.
Last year, after stopping in to see how Barberton’s program operated, U.S. Senator Rob Portman, R-OH, urged fellow lawmakers to look at the Barberton as a model for what is working to stem the opioid crisis.
Mullen said United Way of Summit County hopes to launch the same comprehensive, medication-assisted treatment program at Summa Akron City and Cleveland Clinic Akron General, too.
Meanwhile, as nonprofits, public health and others work to find solutions to the opioid crisis, trends in street drug usage have shifted toward methamphetamine, which can be just as deadly as opioids, but often takes years to kill users instead of moments.
Craig said Summit County will be better prepared for whatever addiction trends come its way.
“If you could say there’s one silver lining in this horrific opiate epidemic, we built out an infrastructure in the community that applies to addiction regardless of substance,” he said.
On Friday, Craig was scheduled to provide a deposition in the federal lawsuit filed by Summit County, Akron and more than 1,500 other governments against drug companies over the opioid epidemic.
In it, governments claim drug companies contributed to the addiction of millions of Americans through prescription painkillers. They also say those companies knew or should have known that those addicted to prescription drugs would ultimately turn to street drugs.
The litigation, expected to have national implications, is slated to go to trial in Cleveland later this year, though settlement talks are ongoing.
“My hope is we can send a message to drug companies and distributors about being responsible about the way they market and sell drugs and what impact those drugs have on the community,” Craig said about the litigation.
Many addicted to street drugs like heroin and fentanyl were first addicted to prescription painkillers like Oxycontin and Vicodin.
This year, Craig said some of his colleagues attended a summit on methamphetamine.
There, they discovered many methamphetamine users once used or misused prescription drugs like Adderall, a stimulant commonly prescribed to help children and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Amanda Garrett can be reached at 330-996-3725 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @agarrettABJ.