At a time when local agencies are being armed with more resources, they appear to be losing the fight against the heroin epidemic.
Butler and Warren county cities are hosting heroin summits, adding rehabilitation centers and clean needle exchanges, and allowing a non-profit Hamilton pharmacy to dispense Narcan, the drug that reverses the effects of heroin and opiate-related overdoses, without a prescription.
Still, people are dying from heroin at record numbers.
“This is a very difficult situation,” said Dr. Ralph Talkers, director of emergency medicine at Atrium Medical Center in Middletown. “We are not winning the situation. We’re losing the battle.”
One of those who understands the pain of heroin, and its dire consequences, is Dorothy McIntosh-Shuemake, whose daughter, Alison Shuemake, 18, died Aug. 26, 2015 from a heroin overdose. The mother has spent the last several months trying to keep other parents from burying their children.
“I knew heroin was bad,” she said. “I didn’t know it could kill you the first time you took it.”
There were 137 total drug overdoses in Butler County for the first nine months of 2015, and 108 of them were blamed on heroin, according to the Butler County Coroner’s Office. At the current rate, there would be 183 total overdoses and 144 heroin-related, both records for the county, the office said.
Just six years ago, there were seven heroin related deaths in the county, meaning the deaths have jumped 1,957 percent since 2010.
In Warren County, there were 60 total drug overdoses in 2015, and 18 of them were heroin-related, the coroner’s office said. But there are 15 cause of death cases pending, according to the Warren County Coroner’s Office. If six more are blamed on heroin, that would set a record in Warren County.
Butler and Warren counties are trending similar to the state, according to the Ohio Department of Health. There were 2,482 drug overdoses in 2014, the highest in the state’s history and 17.6 percent higher than 2013. Of those drug deaths, 1,177 were heroin related.
Ohio’s death rate from unintentional drug overdoses in 2014 was 21.4 per 100,000 residents, compared to 18.2 in 2013. That means more people died from heroin overdoses than alcohol and cocaine overdoses combined, according to the state health department.
Dr. Talkers said the emergency room treats one to three patients a week who have overdosed from heroin. He called the heroin epidemic and its hold “a relentless, uncontrollable situation” throughout the region.
He said they typically see the patients after the city’s emergency medical technicians have administered Narcan in the field. Dr. Talkers said heroin has hit “close to home” for some of the medical staff because they have known people who overdosed.
He said heroin is the current drug of choice of addicts because “it’s a cheap way to feel good.”
Then he quickly added: “With significant risks.”
Even those who survive overdosing on heroin sometimes spend extensive time in the intensive care unit and rehabilitating, Dr. Talkers said.
Possible halfway house in Middletown
Middletown City Manager Doug Adkins said a former fire station on Tytus Avenue may be repurposed as a halfway house to battle against heroin addiction. He said architects are evaluating the fire station to see how easily it could be converted into a halfway house for people recovering from addiction after they leave drug rehabilitation programs.
Preliminary plans would have the city lease the fire station, which was deactivated last year, to Community Behavioral Health, which would operate the halfway house.
Adkins said the city recognizes the “terrible cost of addiction.”
In response to what has been called a “heroin epidemic,” Adkins formed a Heroin Summit that met several times last year, and will meet again in February. He has said the goal of the summit is to see a measurable drop in heroin deaths during the first quarter of 2016.
The group, made up of leaders throughout Butler and Warren counties, is tackling five categories related to heroin: prevention, identification and intervention, treatment, post treatment and community activities, he said.
One Middletown agency has grown because of the Heroin Summit. Ron Ward, founder of Celebrating Restoration, a Middletown drug recovery organization, said his group provides intervention, drug counseling, and job placement for drug addicts.
The group meets every Thursday at Triple Moon Coffee Co. on Central Avenue, and every week, Ward said people are placed in recovery. In the last two years, his group has placed 80 people into recovery programs, he said.
He’s hoping to open a downtown center, possibly on Central Avenue, that would provide one central location for recovering addicts to receive crisis intervention, mentor programs and job placement, though he stressed the site would not be a treatment center.
When asked about Ward’s proposal and what needs to happen to reduce heroin deaths, Maj. Mark Hoffman, of the Middletown Division of Police, said law enforcement is only part of the solution.
“The larger piece is intervention and education,” he said. “We welcome anything that helps our community.”
Adkins said some of the measures taken by the city are paying off. He said the city has seen a 15 percent drop in calls for service and a corresponding reduction in crimes in 2015.
He said the city also saw its Narcan use drop by a third during the last quarter of 2015 compared to the same period in 2014. He said the police department recently added another canine officer to its narcotics division and a task force will be implementing the chronic nuisance ordinance in the spring.
Adkins said the emphasis this year will be eliminating places where this activity continues in Middletown and finding ways to either get addicts into treatment or away from the city.
“This is an important issue, and one communities across the nation are struggling with,” he said. “No community has successfully purged this from their borders. We are all looking for solutions. We have a good foundation in place, and will keep at it as long as it takes. Funding, of course, is always an issue, and we are currently looking for funding for many of these Heroin Summit initiatives. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and we know that results may come slowly, but in Middletown we are beginning to see encouraging outcomes of our efforts, and we will stay the course.”
Narcan available in Hamilton
Officials with Community First Pharmacy, a subsidiary of Community First Solutions, said they have been given the green light by the Ohio Pharmacy Board for the physician-approved protocol for dispensing Narcan, also known as Naloxone. While the drug is available at several pharmacies with a prescription, including some area Walgreen’s, Community First Pharmacy would be the only one in Butler County authorized to provide it over the counter without one.
Ashley Hoehn, pharmacy manager at Community First Pharmacy, has been in her job for three years. She said she began to take notice of the heroin problem and wanted to find a way to help curb the overdose deaths.
“In Hamilton there has been a huge heroin epidemic along with abuse of pain medications recently,” Hoehn said. “We started working with the Butler County Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Services Board, and we wanted to provide an outreach to the community and give them the access to Narcan to help prevent death by overdose.”
Some critics, however, have claimed that wider access to Narcan could promote drug use by giving users a sense of security in case of an overdose.
Laura Sheehan, vice-president of Behavioral Health at Community First Solutions, said the program should be a positive tool to help save lives, and she is happy to see Butler County get one up and running.
“Like many in our community, we are extremely concerned about the opiate overdose. This partnership with Community First Pharmacy and the Butler County Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Services Board allows us to help break down some of the barriers that exist in receiving care,” she said.
‘I love her’
Even with all the medical advancements, the programs and research, Dorothy McIntosh-Shuemake said it feels like: “We are walking through molasses.”
She wishes she could turn back the clock. She wants her baby back.
“I wish I could tell her all about the great things she did,” her mother said. “We don’t spend enough time telling our children how wonderful they are. We spend too much time correcting, criticizing and not enough complimenting. I know she knows I love her.”
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