There are now nearly daily reminders of the toll of heroin, and increasingly, fentanyl, both regionally and nationally, but even just a few years ago that wasn’t the case.
Dr. David Keep had been working for the Lake County Coroner’s Office for two years when he approached the Lake County General Health District in 2010 about compiling reports on drug overdoses.
That year, Keep, who is also pathologist at Lake Health, noticed a spike in heroin overdoses.
“Especially distressing in that year, there were two Lake County high school students who passed away (from drug overdoses),” Keep told the News-Herald in 2014. “No one was really talking about this at that time.”
Through the Lake County General Health District, reports are now put out annually. “When you look at the numbers all together, it opens your eyes,” Keep said.
Keep sees data as a piece of the puzzle in combating the epidemic. The 2015 report on Lake County unintentional drug overdoses was recently released. Lake County saw a record-high number of heroin overdoses in 2015 and fentanyl deaths also increased dramatically, according to the report.
There were 24 heroin overdose deaths in 2015, surpassing the 2013 record of 22. There were 15 fentanyl overdoses recorded in the county last year. Overall, the total number of unintentional drug deaths slightly decreased in Lake County in 2015. There were 42 total unintentional drug deaths in 2015, compared with 46 in 2014. There also 42 unintentional drug deaths in 2013.
In 2015, 71 percent of the accidental drug deaths involved more than one drug. Opiates were involved in 40 of the 42 deaths last year. All 42 victims were Caucasian. “The problem involves both legal and illegal drugs,” the Lake County General Health District report states. As mentioned above, heroin was involved in 24 of those deaths and fentanyl in 15. Oxycodone was third-most common opiate and was involved in four of the 2015 deaths. Methadone was next with three deaths. Hydromorphone, hydrocodone and buprenorphine were each involved in two deaths. Morphine was involved in one.
After opiates, benzodiazepine was the deadliest drug in 2015, contributing to 13 deaths. Benzodiazepines are medically used for anxiety, insomnia, alcohol withdrawal, seizures and panic disorder.
Next were ethanol, which was involved in 10 deaths, and cocaine, which was involved in four. Antidepressants, sedatives and barbiturate were involved in two deaths. Muscle relaxant, amphetamine, gasoline fumes and difluroethane were each involved in one death in 2015.
In 2015, 71 percent of those who died from drug overdoses were male and 29 percent were female. This is consistent with the past several years, where a majority of those who have died from drug overdoses in the county were male. In 2014, 61 percent were male, in 2013 that figure was 69 percent and in 2012, it was 61 percent.
Nearly half of those who died of unintentional overdoses last year were between the ages of 25 and 34. The next most common age range was 35-44.
The report also breaks down the number of overdoses by ZIP code. The 44077 ZIP code (includes Painesville, Painesville Township and Fairport Harbor) saw the most overdose deaths. This area has consistently had the highest number of overdose deaths over the past several years.
Second was the 44060 ZIP code, which includes Mentor and Mentor-on-the-Lake. The 40095 ZIP code, which includes Eastlake and Willowick, was next, followed by 44057 (Madison Village and Madison Township).
Because of limited time and resources, the data is only compiled once a year, so no 2016 figures are currently available for Lake County. But Keep said the number of deaths has not decreased.
Neighboring Cuyahoga County has seen a rise in heroin and fentanyl deaths this year, already eclipsing its 2015 total and is expected to be at an all-time high.
According to a news release from the Cuyahoga Medical Examiner’s Office, an average of one person died every day in Cuyahoga County from heroin, fentanyl or a combination of the two in January and February. A monthly record for the most fentanyl-related deaths in the county was set with 19 in January and was broken the very next month with 24 in February.
The rate of overdose deaths from heroin/fentanyl increased to two people a day beginning on March 9. That month also set a record for fentanyl related deaths with 34. April saw 33 deaths due to heroin, fentanyl or a combination of the two.
“Fentanyl is a very dangerous drug and has greatly complicated the crisis and heightened the urgency of our efforts,” Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Gilson said in a statement in May.