Overdose 'Tsunami' in Ohio Killed Over 4,000 in 2016

By Zachary Siegel 05/31/17

Powerful synthetic opioids like carfentanil and fentanyl are suspected to be driving the dramatic rise in overdose fatalities.

patient with emergency response team being transferred from ambulance

Despite all efforts to contain the opioid overdose epidemic, it continues to worsen. 

More than 4,000 people died from drug overdoses in Ohio during 2016, a 36% jump from the previous year’s 3,000 deaths, according to an analysis of coroners’ reports conducted by The Columbus Dispatch, a daily newspaper based in Columbus, Ohio. 

The newspaper also cited statistics from the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found Ohio led the nation in the total number of overdoses in 2014 and 2015. 

Though Ohio’s Department of Health is still in the process of officially calculating the state’s latest mortality figures, The Dispatch wrote: “The grim toll is getting worse: Many coroners said that 2017's overdose fatalities are outpacing 2016's."

Powerful synthetic opioids like carfentanil, used in veterinary medicine as an elephant tranquilizer, are suspected to be the main drivers behind the dramatic spike in deaths. 

Cuyahoga County led the state with 666 overdose deaths recorded in 2016. According to The Dispatch, Cuyahoga County had some 400 fentanyl-related deaths between Nov. 21, 2015 and Dec. 31, 2016. The county coroner's office is projecting 2017 will see over 600 fentanyl-related deaths. 

The opioid epidemic wiping out communities in Ohio was referred to as a “tsunami” by William Denihan, chief executive officer of the Cuyahoga County Alcohol, Drug Addiction & Mental Health Services Board. “We’ve done so much, but the numbers are going the other way. I don’t see the improvement,” he told The Dispatch

All these deaths occurred even though Ohio Governor John Kasich’s administration took dramatic steps to combat the crisis. His administration broke the GOP’s party-line by expanding Medicaid, which assured insurance would cover treatment for low-income drug users. 

It’s thanks to naloxone, an overdose reversal drug, that there’s any silver lining here. Without wide access to the lifesaving antidote, there would be an estimated 2,300 more deaths in 2015, according to The Dispatch, which cited records of naloxone reversals kept by Ohio’s Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services.

“[Naloxone] is a treatment for overdoses, but it doesn’t cure addiction,” said Dr. Mark Hurst, medical director at both the state mental health and health departments. 

Naloxone, of course, is a vital tool in saving lives. But to solve the overdose crisis means addressing its root causes. It also means implementing what modern addiction medicine considers the gold standard of care: easy access to methadone and buprenorphine, treatments shown to reduce mortality rates by upwards of 50%. 

Until then, there’s no telling when the startling death trend will reverse. 

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.