Deaths from the extremely potent synthetic opioid fentanyl more than doubled in Montgomery County last year, making 2016 the deadliest year yet for the county struggling to slow the opioid crisis.
Despite additional treatment programs, increased use of the overdose antidote Narcan, and an all-hands-on-deck appeal by county health officials, 349 people died because of accidental overdoses in 2016, according to a Montgomery County Coroner’s Office final report.
Anthony Martin found his brother Darrell Morgan dead on Christmas Eve. Also dead inside the Kettering apartment was Morgan’s girlfriend Jamie Haddix. Both their toxicology results came back positive for fentanyl and fentanyl analogues.
“These dealers they know that if someone dies on their product, all the other ones are coming. That must be so good it killed someone. That’s the sad truth of it,” Martin said. “They are selling death.”
Like so many, Morgan’s addiction started with pain pills after a major injury and back surgery. And once cut off from medication, Morgan sought relief on the street, Martin said.
“My brother lived a life of having problems, but he was a good person,” Martin said.
The number of 2016 accidental overdose deaths represents a 35 percent increase over 2015. But fentanyl-related deaths jumped 141 percent from 104 to 251, illustrating how the powerful drug is escalating the crisis.
Fentanyl arrives wave after wave in ever-more powerful analogues that can be hundreds of times stronger than heroin, said Kent Harshbarger, the county’s coroner.
“I don’t know that we can interpret we have more users, I think what we are seeing is different products on the street,” he said. “Some of these products are strong enough that you need so much Narcan to reverse it that it’s just not helping, and people are dying.”
More than 150 bodies have come through the morgue’s doors in just the first 10 weeks of this year, signalling 2017 will be worse yet, Harshbarger said.
“We are halfway, nearly, to last year’s total and it’s not even the end of March,” he said.
Harshbarger said the morgue is “constantly at capacity,” and the office resorted to contracting with a local funeral home to take bodies, an option that had to be used once in January.
Fentanyl was found to be factor in 251 deaths while drug screening showed heroin present in 69 cases. Of those, 34 autopsies turned up both fentanyl and heroin.
“It’s abundantly clear that we are in a public health crisis that has permeated every segment of our society,” said Ann Stevens, spokeswoman for Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction & Mental Health Services. “Most people with addiction don’t want to die, but users are playing Russian roulette with their lives and don’t even know it.”
Fentanyl is a legal drug used for pain management. The illicit street version was first detected at the Miami Valley Regional Crime Laboratory in October of 2013. Since then, the drug made in clandestine overseas labs comes in variety of forms, sometimes edging out heroin altogether in a more lethal package. An amount of carfentanil no larger than a granule of table salt can kill. The powerful elephant tranquilizer, was cited in just two 2016 deaths, but Harshbarger said it’s responsible for several fatal overdoses this year.
» RELATED: Opioid epidemic: 6 things that explain the crisis
The report shows no person nor corner of the county was immune from the epidemic.
The youngest to die was 2-year-old Lee Hays who somehow got a hold of fentanyl. The oldest was a 79-year-old man. Eighty percent were white; 64 percent men. Dayton had the most deaths with 162, but people also overdosed and died in 20 other communities including Brookville, Clayton, Miamisburg, Oakwood and Washington Twp.
Already this year, at least two apparent overdose deaths occurred in Centerville where four children found their parents dead – including their airline pilot father.
Brian J. Halye, 36, and Courtney A. Halye, 34, could be among those sending the 2017 toll beyond last year’s.
Harshbarger said he’s seen too many opioid deaths rip families apart: “There are a lot children being left parentless in this tragedy.”