The number of Montgomery County overdose deaths in March, while preliminary, dropped to the lowest level in three years, signaling the success of an 18-month-long community effort to combat the opioid crisis as a public health emergency.
According to the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office, 15 overdose deaths were recorded this March, the lowest number since March 2015, when 12 overdose deaths were reported. In between were deadly months like last May when overdose deaths peaked at 81, adding to 2017’s record 566 people who died from drug overdoses.
“Fifteen is still too many. We need zero, but we’re moving in the right direction,” said Montgomery County Commissioner Dan Foley.
No one tactic by itself reduced the number of deaths, said Dan Suffoletto, Public Health - Dayton & Montgomery County spokesman.
“The concept was to tackle this problem from all angles,” he said. “There is hope, there is a way to recover, there is a way to not overdose.”
The backbone of the effort has been the Community Overdose Action Team, or COAT, that now includes more than 200 people from all corners of the crisis.
Formed in the fall of 2016 in response to the opioid epidemic, the COAT has made significant progress, said Jodi Long, director of Treatment and Supportive Services for the Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction & Mental Health Services board.
“We’ve increased access to care, particularly 24-7 access to care and have increased opportunities for recovery housing and peer support,” she said. “It has really impacted in a positive way the number of people that are seeking treatment and not dying due to their addiction.”
Representatives from 100-plus organizations have attacked the problem on multiple fronts: limiting the drug supply, preventing addiction, educating the public, limiting prescription opioids, enhancing harm reduction, treatment and recovery efforts as well as helping those with addiction navigate the courts.
“We need to point to all the efforts everybody is making, whether it’s law enforcement, Public Health and ADAMHS, and treatment providers,” said Foley. “In the past, whenever we had major drug issues like the crack issue in the ‘90s, we did not address it as a public health problem.”
Foley said the model will provide the county a way to address future drug crises yet unknown. The team and a new Dayton Regional Crisis Stabilization Unit and Detox Center, partially funded in the new state capital budget, “will pay dividends for years,” he said.
Long said while the number of overdose deaths is down, the number of people seeking treatment is not declining. ADAMHS continues to serve more than 2,500 people a month in active treatment or seeking help.
“Just because the death rates are down doesn’t mean addiction has disappeared in Montgomery County,” she said. “It just means the substances being used are different.”
Most of the 566 overdose deaths last year were due to opioids including extra-lethal fentanyl, which was found in the bodies of every two out of three. But more people are turning back to other drugs like methamphetamine, which don’t kill immediately, Long said.
“They will all kill you, it’s just whether they kill you in an instant, a couple of minutes, or through chronic medical conditions caused by prolonged use over 10 or 15 years,” she said.