Surge of overdose deaths hit region this weekend

A powerful batch of heroin may be responsible for a weekend surge in overdoses that sent some addicts to the hospital and and six to the morgue.

The heroin is so “hot” it could be what some dealers on the street call “toe tag,” said Dr. Kent Harshbarger, Montgomery County Coroner.

Six other suspected overdose deaths were reported from other counties that the Montgomery County coroner’s office conducts autopsies for, he said.

Dayton Police responded to eleven overdoses – three fatal — between Thursday and Tuesday, said Maj. Brian Johns. All the overdoses were on Dayton’s East Side. “We had two prior to the holiday and then just a flurry this weekend,” Johns said.

Police responded beginning late Monday to three overdose calls within three hours of each other on Huffman Avenue – two at the same address. During the first call just after midnight, police found Paul McElfresh, 33, dead.

What drug or combination of drugs is found responsible for his and the other deaths won’t be known for weeks, Harshbarger said.

Johns declined to characterize the drugs likely responsible for the most recent deaths as any worse than those turning up in bodies in the past.

“I don’t use the words ‘bad batch, because it’s hard to tell until you actually get the report back from the coroner’s office and the toxicology report – but there’s something there. There has to be something — in my experience – to the substance,” said Johns.

McElfresh’s cousin David Bailey said he tried to revive his cousin with CPR before medics arrived.

“It was too late,” Bailey said. “He was too cold.”

Hours after that, Bailey tried to aid Debra Comer, 50, who overdosed in the same house next door where McElfresh died.

Bailey said he thinks more should be done to get addicts help and punish drug dealers.

“If you’re selling and you’re killing somebody I think you need to get life (in prison),” Bailey said. “I think my cousin was murdered.”

The Memorial Day weekend is recognized as the unofficial start to summer, but could turn into the first test for a new task force that pans to investigate overdose deaths as homicides, Johns said.

Announced earlier this month, the Heroin Involved Death Investigation Team, led by the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, will focus on the jurisdictions served by the Dayton Police Department and Partners include the Dayton Police Department, Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, Montgomery County Coroner’s Office, Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Miami Valley Regional Crime Laboratory.

Johns said any investigation will depend on the strength of evidence collected at the scenes and whether witnesses come forward.

County and city officials had reason to hope 2015 would not be as deadly as 2014. January and February overdose death numbers showed a downturn in unintentional overdose deaths, officials said.

Harshbarger said what’s striking to him are deaths are going down in Montgomery County and the city of Dayton in particular. He said the count’s had about 12 fewer overdose deaths between January and March of this year compared to the same time in 2014.

“The numbers have dropped most significantly in Dayton proper,” he said.

Total drug overdose deaths number 25 for the first two months of the year. If the trend were to continue, the county would be on pace to dramatically reduce the number of unintentional overdose deaths from last year’s 264, Harshbarger.

During the first two months of the year, 15 people died of overdoses from heroin, fentanyl or a combination of the two, according to the coroner’s office records. Last year, 190 overdose death cases included fentanyl, heroin or a combination.

Both Johns and Harshbarger said Narcan in the hands of EMS and cops in Dayton seems to be reducing deaths.

“To me the trend would look like in the bigger city where Narcan is available, lives are being saved, and in the more rural areas are not seeing as big a decrease,” said Harshbarger.

Johns said the department’s overdose calls are down 15 percent this year compared to last and the past few days might breaks a relative stretch of calm.

“It is sad because we had such a great start of the year as far as the deaths and a reduction, and now we’re facing this issue again.”

The day before McElfresh died, police responded to a report of a woman overdosing in the 700 block of Huffman. As police administered the life-saving drug Narcan to a woman two other men on the scene overdosed right in front of police – one the woman’s husband. Three medics in all were dispatched to the location.

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