Ohio County Sees Slight Dip In Opioid-Related Deaths Thanks To Narcan

By Kelly Burch 05/10/17

Hamilton County, an area that one coroner believes was a testing ground for carfentanil, has been hit hard by the opioid crisis. 

a paramedic taking narcan out of his emergency medical kit.
Photo via YouTube

Opioid deaths in Hamilton County, Ohio—which includes the city of Cincinnati—make up more than half of all accidental deaths in the area, according to Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco, who held a news conference Monday morning to address the opioid epidemic that continues to claim lives in the state and across the country.

The overdose death rates in Hamilton County dropped slightly last year, from 414 in 2015 to 403 in 2016. However, Sammarco was not encouraged by the news, saying that the only reason for the slight decline in death rates was because of the wider availability of Narcan, the opioid overdose reversal drug. In 2015, first responders in the county used 4,700 milligrams (about 2,000 doses) of Narcan; in 2016 they used nearly 6,500 milligrams. 

"We feel that Narcan has saved a considerable number of people in this county in the last couple of years," Sammarco said, according to Fox News. "There is no doubt in our minds that we would have a much higher overdose death rate in this county if not for having Narcan readily available to not just family members and people at risk and their partners but to our fire and police that are out there as our first responders."

However, she emphasized that Narcan cannot save all lives. In fact, the overdose reversal drug is having a hard time combating opioids used in combination with other drugs.

"We have seen everything from heroin, fentanyl, carfentanil, fluorofentanyl, acrylfentanyl, butyrfentanyl. We've seen a lot of different combinations, along with cocaine," Sammarco said, noting that cocaine use has increased 30% in 2017.

Narcan is not effective against the very powerful opioids that remain in a person’s system for hours. Carfentanil, for example, remains in a person’s system for seven hours, while Narcan only lasts for up to half an hour. That means that a person can receive a dose of Narcan but still overdose after it has worn off.

Carfentanil—the opioid used to tranquilize large animals like elephants—is a prevalent drug in the area, Sammarco said. “That's truly back on streets," she said. 

The use of carfentanil and other drug combinations that do not respond to Narcan are part of the reason that the overdose rate in Hamilton County for 2017 is on course to surpass previous years. "This year, to date, we already have 221 suspected drug overdoses in Hamilton County," said Sammarco. 

Last September, Sammarco theorized that Hamilton County was being used as a testing ground for carfentanil. "The way this was carried out in our communities in the region brought up a lot of fears ... that our community was being used as a test tube,” she said at the time

Last year, nearly 28,000 drug samples were submitted to the county drug lab for analysis. "That's a huge number,” Sammarco said. "That's absolutely huge." 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.