Butler County Coroner Dr. Lisa Mannix called the opiate epidemic “a big beast” and confirmed 232 overdose deaths in the county last year, a 20.8 percent increase from 2016.
Mannix, the county health commissioner and executive director of the mental health and addiction board, held a joint press conference Tuesday morning to reveal the numbers and talk about all of the efforts being made to curb the crisis.
Of the 232 overdoses in the county, Mannix said 82 percent were related to fentanyl, fentanyl analog (a synthetic fentanyl-like drug) and heroin. There were 192 confirmed drug-related deaths in 2016. These numbers do not reflect overdose deaths that occurred at Atrium Medical Center in Warren County.
Middletown has been particularly hard hit by the epidemic and some of the 77 deaths there — as reported by the Middletown Fire Department — last year might not be reflected in Mannix’s numbers if the person was pronounced dead at Atrium.
Mannix said the burgeoning number of deaths due to overdose is upsetting.
“I’m saddened by it. We have so many efforts going on in the county to help decrease this, and yet we continue to see increases in deaths,” she said. “I’m hoping 2018 will be better. As you can see it’s almost a moving target in terms of drugs that we’re seeing. It’s a big beast.”
Mannix’s office investigated 485 deaths last year, and overdoses by far were the largest group. The report showed there were 11 homicides, 45 suicides and 127 natural deaths, to name a few categories. Mannix said the opiate of choice in these deaths had taken a violent shift away from heroin alone, to fentanyl and fentanyl analog.
The shift is frightening, said Scott Rasmus, executive director of the Butler County Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Services Board.
“We are facing a drug challenge never experienced before,” he said. “It becomes more potent and lethal as each month passes, reaching a point that fentanyl and its analogs are 1,000 times more potent than heroin itself. They are lethal and deadly.”
Rasmus mentioned parts of his board’s $3.6 million Opiate Business Plan to combat the problem, such as increased detox facilities, more treatment for youth and jail inmates, a text component for the crisis hotline and other initiatives. Something he didn’t detail, however, is probably the biggest development of all in the war on drugs.
The MHARS board informed the county commissioners last year during budget hearings that it would likely need to ask voters for a levy to support addiction services. Instead, they asked Butler County Prosecutor Mike Gmoser to reconsider his stance on using some of the $10 million in mental health levy funds for addiction services.
Gmoser determined that drug addictions are a form of mental illness and therefore qualify for some of those mental health levy dollars.
With the infusion of levy funding, the MHARS board is gradually ramping up the opiate plan, spending about $500,000 between now and July, an additional $1.25 million for fiscal year 2018-2019 and $2 million the year after. Medicaid will cover the rest of the plan.
There is another risk associated with addictions Health Commissioner Jenny Bailer said, involving dirty needles.
“IV drug use has caused historically high levels of Hepatitis C and HIV infections in our community,” she said. “Since 2002, Hepatitis C has grown by 322 percent in Butler County. Since 2013, HIV has gone up 46 percent in Butler County. This is a threat to everyone.”
Bailer said they have a blood born pathogen prevention program to get rid of dirty needles in Middletown, but one is still needed in the central or south-central part of the county. She also noted that her office provides free Naloxone kits to save people who have overdosed.
Mannix said there is one weapon above all in this fight.
“We have to remember that education is paramount, it is absolutely necessary that we work on prevention,” she said. “Educating our children (is important) so this unfortunate trend in deaths stops.”