A record pace: Overdose deaths continue to rise in Bartholomew County

Drug overdose deaths continue to rise in Bartholomew County, putting the community on a pace that could eclipse the record number of deaths that happened last year.

As of this week, there had been 15 confirmed overdose deaths in the county with local officials saying “there’s not much doubt” that the county will pass last year’s record total by fall, the Bartholomew County Coroner’s Office said.

Last year, there were 33 overdoses deaths in Bartholomew County, up from 31 in 2020 — both of which were records at the time. But officials, who had hoped that the increase in overdose deaths, as well as overall deaths, was a temporary “rough spot,” now fear that it “beginning to look like ‘the new normal.’”

The rise in overdose deaths is largely being fueled by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is more potent than heroin but cheaper to produce and distribute, officials said. The drug is quickly becoming “the primary fatal drug in drug overdoses” in Bartholomew County and has been involved in all but three overdose deaths this year, according to the Bartholomew County Coroner’s office.

Officials fear that a continued influx of fentanyl in the community will continue to accelerate a crisis that has killed at least 168 Bartholomew County residents since 2015.

“One could theorize we’re on course for 45 to 50 (deaths) for the year,” said Bartholomew County Deputy Coroner Jay Frederick. “In any case, there’s not much doubt we’ll surpass last year’s 33 (overdose deaths) by fall at the current rate.”

The updated figures from the coroner’s office come just days after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 107,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year, setting another tragic record in the nation’s escalating overdose epidemic, The Associated Press reported.

The provisional 2021 total translates to roughly one U.S. overdose death every 5 minutes. It marked a 15% increase from the previous record, set the year before. The CDC reviews death certificates and then makes an estimate to account for delayed and incomplete reporting.

U.S. overdose deaths have risen most years for more than two decades. The increase began in the 1990s with overdoses involving opioid painkillers, followed by waves of deaths led by other opioids like heroin and — most recently — illicit fentanyl.

Last year, overdoses involving fentanyl and other synthetic opioids surpassed 71,000, up 23% from the year before. There also was a 23% increase in deaths involving cocaine and a 34% increase in deaths involving meth and other stimulants.

Experts say the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem as lockdowns and other restrictions isolated those with drug addictions and made treatment harder to get.

Locally, Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress (ASAP) characterized the local and national deaths as “heartbreaking.”

“Every time (the death count) gets higher, we think, ‘Are we hitting that peak?’ But it just seems to keep going higher and higher,” said ASAP Director of Operations Matthew Neville.

Recently, ASAP started a strategic planning process to look at the quickly evolving landscape of substance use disorder in Bartholomew County to evaluate how the organization can best serve the community long-term.

One things that ASAP officials are considering is distributing free fentanyl test strips in the community as a harm-reduction measure.

Officials say fentanyl is being increasingly cut into other drugs, often without the buyers’ knowledge, and the strips can alert people to whether a drug contains fentanyl.

However, there is no timetable for when ASAP will make any decisions or if the organization will distribute the test strips, Neville said.

“We’ve not begun distributing those yet,” Neville said. “We’ve just started to have those conversations with law enforcement, community leaders, things like that, to figure out what would be the best way because we recognize that fentanyl is the main cause of a lot of the overdoses that we’re seeing. And we see (the test strips) as another harm reduction method to allow people to know what they’re putting in their body.”

Frederick, for his part, said the pandemic and its impact on the county’s longstanding drug crisis has taken a toll on the coroner’s office and expressed concerns about resources and whether the office’s case load could be “the new normal.”

“What concerns me most is the amount of resources required to properly investigate these deaths, Frederick said. “It puts a significant strain on our staff and the professional resources we employ, such as forensic autopsies and toxicology testing. What we’d hoped was a ‘rough spot’ is beginning to look like ‘the new normal,’ unfortunately. We have a great crew, but the pandemic and its impact on the pre-existing drug crisis (has taken) a toll on our office. We have always had great support from the (Bartholomew County) Council and commissioners, as it helps a lot as we navigate ‘the new normal’ of death investigations.”