Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk, Trumbull County coroner, reported in early September a noticeable spike in overdose deaths, especially among young females.
Now he has the blood work in hand to confirm the causes of those deaths and others and calls overdose an “epidemic.”
“It’s here. It’s real. It’s killing us. It’s in the city and out in Mesopotamia,” he said.
From July 30 to Oct. 3, Trumbull County had 15 drug overdose deaths, predominantly heroin overdoses of people from age 21 to 54.
Dr. Germaniuk called those numbers a “small slice in the middle of the fray” of the local war on drugs.
He said it’s not easy to identify a reason for the late-summer spike, but he suspects it has to do with people switching from the prescription painkiller oxycodone to the street drug heroin.
There was an explosive growth in oxycodone products such as OxyContin and Percocet around 2003 to 2005, which is one reason why Trumbull County reached its high point for drug overdose deaths in 2007 at 64.
It spiked again at 59 in 2011, then dropped last year to 36.
The county had 30 drug overdose deaths for the first nine months of this year, meaning statistically the county is on course to reach 40 this year.
Over the years, people have become addicted to OxyContin for pain, but regulatory agencies have clamped down on doctors, trying to limit the amount of painkillers they prescribe, Dr. Germaniuk said.
The result has been for addicts to turn to heroin, an illegal street drug, which has come “rushing in,” he said. Sometimes addicts sell oxycodone products to get money to buy heroin because “$80 buys a lot of heroin,” he said.
Jeff Orr, commander of the Trumbull Ashtabula Group Law Enforcement Task Force, the county’s primary drug crime-fighting agency, said heroin addiction can send a person into a syndrome some call “chasing the dragon,” in which the user is compelled to chase after the euphoria they found the first time they used the drug.
But the euphoria is not the same the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth time, so people will try other things and sometimes get “bad stuff” that kills them, Orr said.
When he talks to young people, he asks them about prescription drugs they or family members receive after surgery and about the instructions inside.
“They have a warning sheet,” Orr said, adding that the sheet talks about drug interactions, how much to take and whom to call if there’s a problem.
“You don’t get that warning with heroin,” Orr said, so people take drugs in combinations that lead to overdoses.
Orr said one danger ironically comes to those who have gotten clean from the drug because if they return to using, their body isn’t as adapted to the drug.
“I know a couple of those people who died in the two months who had just come back from rehab,” Orr said.
Orr thinks it can be difficult for doctors to know what any particular person’s tolerance is for pain, so after surgery, they typically prescribe a painkiller and let the person decide whether to use it.
But that can be a problem, especially for someone who already has an addiction, he said.
Lauren Thorp, a substance-abuse program coordinator for the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board, said one of the biggest challenges to fighting drug addiction is to make people understand that the problem affects all of us.
Addicts break into our houses, they have traffic crashes that kill us and our loved ones, and they leave behind children and other loved ones, she said.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving was successful in making drunken driving less attractive by showing how much it hurts innocent people. Campaigns to reduce smoking did the same thing by showing how second-hand smoke affects everyone, Thorp said.
That same type of message may someday make drug abuse unpopular in the same way, she said.
She and Orr will unveil a new anti-drug strategy in early 2014.