Coroner: Numbers don’t tell whole story of opioid epidemic

Last year Butler County Coroner Dr. Lisa Mannix and the mental health and addiction and health boards teamed up to use data to create a daily snapshot of the overdose landscape in the county. The data allows Butler County police, fire and emergency rooms to be prepared and the public notified if there is a particularly virulent threat.

Total number of overdose deaths listed on the tool Tuesday were 118. Mannix said while her numbers are usually used as the benchmark for the current state of the epidemic, those numbers cannot possibly tell the whole story. She said deaths due to pneumonia, endocarditis — a disease involving the heart wall — and Hepatitis C can also be attributed to drug abuse but aren’t tabulated as such.

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“In terms of deaths there’s probably way more, ours are literally you just took the drug and you died, not you’ve been taking it forever and now you’ve got a bunch of complications of it,” she said. “For everybody that’s dying there are a bunch more people with Hep C that are going to die or require extensive medical resources.”

Mannix said the epidemic became truly acute in 2013 when fentanyl arrived on the scene with a vengence. Heroin was laced with the highly potent and addictive artificial opiate then, but now Mannix and others have said addicts are fearful of the overdose deaths connected to that drug so the drug cartels are starting to poison other drugs like meth and cocaine, to create a new client base.

“If you think of it as businessmen from the cartels’ standpoint you’ve got somebody hooked on cocaine, not quite the same addictive level that the opioids are,” the coroner said. “So when you sell them some cocaine you mix a little opioid in there and now they are addicted.”

The drug of choice isn’t the only thing that has changed. Mannix said most of her overdose deaths are now white men in the 38 to 39 age range. While there has been a huge problem with younger people becoming addicted — the CDC reported in 2015 heroin use by people age 18 to 25 doubled over the last decade — from what she hears from family members these people have struggled with drug addiction for a long time.

“I think we will lose that entire generation,” she said. “Those (addicts) are hard to get into treatment, the treatment is long and expensive and there’s lots of relapse and there’s lots of problems with that.”

The coroner also believes while some people got hooked on opioids years ago from pain medication that isn’t the case anymore. She said statistics show overdose deaths from pain medication is on the decline and fewer opioid medications are being prescribed, since the government crack down of “pill mills.” Plus, she said the illegal drugs are cheaper, she surmised one hit of fentanyl “is probably not more than you’d pay for lunch.”

Once again family members — those she must comfort and help assuage feelings of guilt because they couldn’t stop their loved one from killing themselves — are not telling her pain medication was the root of their loved one’s problem.

Mannix said it is never easy trying to comfort family members after a loved one dies but with drug overdoses it is particularly heart wrenching.

“Every death is somebody that’s lost somebody and a lot of times that’s been a long struggle,” Mannix said. “They’ve had a long history of addiction, these families have tried to help them. So there is a sense when they lose this battle of failure and loss.”

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