Coroner investigates 145 suspected overdose deaths in month

54 Montgomery County deaths in January would be nearly double last year’s record pace.

The bodies keep piling up in the coroner’s office, which took in at least 145 suspected overdoses in January from Montgomery and surrounding counties.

“There’s no end in sight,” said Dr. Kent Harshbarger, coroner.

In the 15 minutes Harshbarger spent Tuesday alerting reporters to another steep rise in overdose deaths – 54 in Montgomery County so far in January – three more bodies rolled into the morgue.

» WHERE IS THE PROBLEM? More than half of Montgomery County’s opioid deaths in alarming spike were outside of Dayton

“Our case totals have completely gone out of control for us as far as our ability to handle this amount of workload,” he said. “It’s really been from overdose deaths.”

The office contracts with area counties, too, so in January, 14 suspected overdose victims came from Clark County, 13 from Warren County and seven from Greene County.

» ACROSS THE REGION: Butler County sees 5 heroin overdose deaths in 26-hour span

Montgomery County experienced a record 355 confirmed or suspected overdoses during 2016. But if January’s pace continues, the county could witness 650 overdose deaths in 2017.

At least 85 percent of the 2016 overdose deaths ruled on by Jan. 4 were the result of opioids, according to autopsy results.

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Fentanyl – up to 50 times more potent than heroin – and its yet stronger synthetic analogs are responsible for the ever-increasing body count, Harshbarger said. Fentanyl was a primary or contributing factor in more than 65 percent of 2016 overdose deaths in which autopsies had been completed by Jan. 4.

Naloxone – the overdose reversal drug — has undoubtedly saved lives, but may be no match for forms of fentanyl now on the street, Harshbarger said.

“I don’t know the answer. I don’t think anyone knows an answer yet,” he said. “But clearly there are dangerous products on the street in our community.”

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Just last week a spike in Clark County overdoses sent 50 people to Springfield Regional Medical Center’s emergency department within a 48 hour period. Naloxone was in such short supply county health officials asked the state for more supplies.

Heroin is seen at the bottom of a test tube at the Montgomery County Crime Lab. STAFF PHOTO / CHRIS STEWART
Photo: Staff Writer

“Substance users are playing Russian roulette when they buy illicitly manufactured drugs on the street,” Helen Jones-Kelley, executive director, Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction & Mental Health Services, said. “The Community Action Overdose Team is currently working on methods that will improve the system and treatment options, but I can’t stress enough that being an addict is a brain disease and these chemicals greatly alter cognitive thinking. That means the people who know the addict must know about naloxone and other options to prevent a fatal overdose.”

Drug overdoses killed at least 3,050 Ohioans in 2015.

The opioid epidemic is so pronounced in the state that the first bill introduced in the new Ohio Senate session was a bill to increase penalties for drug trafficking violations – particularly if involving fentanyl-related compounds.

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