ALARMING NUMBERS: Officials estimate drug overdose deaths match last year’s total

Andy East | The Republic

Fatal drug overdoses have continued to climb in Bartholomew County, with local officials estimating earlier this week that overdose deaths have matched last year for the highest annual total on record.

The coroner’s office is estimating that 31 people in Bartholomew County have died from drug overdoses this year, adding that the figure “should be very alarming” for a community of this size and mirrors trends seen across the state and country, said Bartholomew County Deputy Coroner Jay Frederick.

By comparison, there were 31 overdose deaths in Bartholomew County last year, the highest since at least 2015 and up from 24 in 2019, according to figures from the coroner’s office. This year’s total marks the first time on record that Bartholomew County has recorded more than 60 overdose deaths in a two-year period.

The 2021 numbers include at least one suspected overdose death that is still pending toxicology results, Frederick said. The coroner’s office plans to conduct an audit of its caseload this year and publish a report at some point next year.

“We can estimate 31 (deaths),” Frederick said. “…There’s still some toxicology testing out there that we’re waiting to get reports back on.”

“It’s important to remember that what we see in Bartholomew County is not unusual or abnormal,” Frederick said. “It’s just a representation of what’s going on all across America.”

The update from the coroner’s office comes a little over a month since the federal government reported that U.S. drug overdose deaths reached a record high over the latest 12-month period on record, eclipsing an estimated 100,000 deaths for the first time.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 100,300 Americans died of drug overdoses from May 2020 to April 2021 — including an estimated 2,487 people in Indiana.

However, the figures are not an official count, The Associated Press reported. It can take many months for death investigations involving drug fatalities to become final, so the CDC made the estimate based on 98,000 reports it has received so far from the latest available death certificate data.

Overdose deaths have been rising across the country for more than two decades before accelerating during the past two years and jumping nearly 30% in the latest year — now surpassing deaths from car crashes, guns and even flu and pneumonia, according to wire reports. The total is close to that for diabetes, the nation’s No. 7 cause of death.

In Indiana, overdose deaths increased 1,875 from May 2019 to April 2020 to an estimated 2,487 during the same period this year, which would be an all-time high, CDC records show.

Drug overdose deaths have doubled in Indiana since the same time period in 2016, when 1,285 deaths were reported. A total of 151 people died from a drug overdose in Bartholomew County from Jan. 1, 2015 to this past Monday, according to coroner’s office records.

Experts believe the top drivers of overdose deaths are the growing prevalence of deadly fentanyl in the illicit drug supply and the COVID-19 pandemic, which left many drug users socially isolated and unable to get treatment or other support, according to wire reports.

The new data shows many of the deaths involve fentanyl, which has surpassed heroin as the type of drug involved in the most overdose deaths five years ago. Dealers are mixing fentanyl with other drugs.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and is often illegally produced and sold on the streets for its heroin-like effect, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Bartholomew County, fentanyl and methamphetamine “are far and away the two biggest culprits,” with officials often finding drugs being laced with fentanyl, Frederick said.

“There are all kinds of drugs being cut with fentanyl because fentanyl is more bang for the buck,” Frederick said. “It’s more kick in a smaller package, if you will. That’s why it’s so prevalent.”

There were a total of 133 emergency room visits in Bartholomew County due to a drug overdose during the first half of this year, with about 52% of the visits involving an opioid, according to the most recent data from the Indiana Department of Health.

By comparison, there were 144 emergency room visits in Bartholomew County during the first half of last year and 122 during the same period in 2019.

For its part, the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress (ASAP) has seen a steady stream of people this year seeking help coming into its Hub at the Doug Otto Center at 1531 13th St., though foot traffic tends to slow down during the holidays, said ASAP Director of Operations Matthew Neville.

Neville said “each one of those lives lost is tough to swallow,” but added that the fact that Bartholomew County didn’t see the steep increase in overdose deaths this year that other communities have reported is evidence that the local response to the drug epidemic is having an impact.

The CDC figures from last month found that the estimated overdose death toll rose in all but four states from May 2020 to April 2021 — Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey and South Dakota — compared with the same period a year earlier, according to wire reports. The states with largest increases were Vermont (70%), West Virginia (62%) and Kentucky (55%).

“The 31 lives lost are an absolutely a tragedy, but to be able to stay steady when (overdose deaths in) other areas in the state in the country are wildly increasing to me says the system that the community as a whole has been working to build is starting to work,” Neville said.

But the deaths just scratch the surface of the impact that substance use disorder has on the community, Frederick and Neville said.

“Our overdose death numbers should be shocking because each of these is a person with a family and a story,” Frederick said. “But we also need to remember that there are also much higher numbers, and those are the people who continue to struggle with addiction and their families.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.