Editorial: Declining overdose deaths cause for cautious optimism

Cautious optimism summarizes the views of local officials regarding a remarkable decline in fatal overdoses in Bartholomew County in the first several months of this year.

The Republic’s Andy East reported that at the current pace so far this year, overdose deaths in the county had fallen by what amounts to 72%. Through early May, there had been four confirmed fatal overdoses, putting the county on pace for 11 overall for the year. Compare that to last year, when the number was a record 39 — the latest in a sad string of records.

The news East reported surprised many who are working to help people overcome addiction, including Dr. Kevin Terrell, medical director of Columbus Regional Health’s Treatment and Support Center, or TASC.

“I’m thrilled by this wonderful news, and I really hope this indicates a new trend for the future in Bartholomew County. Unfortunately, I’m not optimistic that the news will be so rosy for the rest of 2023,” Terrell said.

Terrell and others have seen up close an insidious addiction crisis that has killed 196 people in the county since 2015, so such a guarded response is understandable.

But this is also an opportune time to point out that several things have changed in recent years that make enormous positive change a real possibility.

First, the community has invested significantly in expanding treatment, including through TASC and the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress (ASAP), among others. Second, the end of the COVID public health emergency eased isolation and stress triggers that fed addiction while also allowing reallocation of healthcare resources to better respond to the opioid crisis. Third, the wider availability of Naloxone (Narcan) and fentanyl test strips greatly reduced harm for people with substance abuse disorder.

Other factors also have played a role in what we believe at long last may well break the fever of our opioid crisis. Significantly, we believe removing the stigma often associated with drug treatment has played a major role in helping people recover.

Nevertheless, officials caution that we must be mindful of the ever-shifting dangers posed by illicit drugs.

Just as fentanyl swept through the drug trade and was involved in 27 of the 39 overdose deaths in 2022, officials are watching for new threats. These include nitazene, a synthetic opioid that can be more potent than fentanyl, and xylazine, an animal sedative known as Tranq.

“These drugs – and others that are on the horizon – will probably continue to increase overdose deaths on our community as they spread to us. It feels impossible to keep up with the illegal drug manufacturers and the dealers,” Terrell said.

But yet another factor driving down the overdose numbers is increased arrest and prosecution of drug dealers. “It’s good cooperation and good information sharing that I think has really led to a lot of this,” said Bartholomew County coroner and Columbus police officer Clayton Nolting.

The numbers show our community is on the right track. Let’s do all we can to keep it that way. If you or someone you know needs treatment for substance abuse disorder, call ASAP at (812) 418-8705, or visit asapbc.org.