Overdose deaths on same pace as last year

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Dr. Kevin Terrell poses for a photo in his office at the Columbus Regional Health Treatment and Support Center in Columbus, Ind., Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Dr. Terrell is the medical director of the center.

Drug overdose deaths in Bartholomew County so far this year have largely kept pace with last year, when fatal overdoses declined 36% to their lowest annual total since 2019.

As of Wednesday, there had been four overdose deaths in Bartholomew County, compared to three overdose deaths at the same point last year, according to figures from the Bartholomew County Coroner’s Office.

In 2023, there were 25 overdose deaths in the county, down from a record 39 in 2022 and the lowest annual total since 2019, according to the Columbus Police Department’s annual report, which cited county records.

The decline in overdose deaths over roughly the past 14 months has been met with optimism from local officials but also some uncertainty about what might be causing the decrease.

Officials have said that the illegal drug supply is not any safer than it was two years ago, with “continued widespread use of fentanyl” in the community. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that local officials have said largely fueled a historic rise in overdose deaths over the past few years.

At the same time, local treatment centers are continuing to see increasing number of people seeking help with drug use, including at Columbus Regional Health’s Treatment and Support Center, or TASC, which provides a range of outpatient treatments for substance abuse disorders, including medication-assisted treatment in certain cases.

“I’m surprised to hear that the streak of lower overdose deaths has continued into early 2024,” said TASC Medical Director Dr. Kevin Terrell. “This is, obviously, great news and reason for optimism. With that said, I can’t help but be skeptical and expect that the reduction in overdose death numbers will rise to something closer to what we saw in 2021 and 2022. I certainly hope to be wrong on this, but it is just hard to think that we have this licked. I say that because of the continued growing numbers of patients I see every day who are struggling with opioid addiction.”

“Because of the continued widespread use of fentanyl, coupled with a lower number of deaths in the last 14 months, I have to wonder if a large part of the reduction in overdose deaths is due to harm-reduction programs, such as naloxone distribution,” Terrell added.

Naloxone is a nasal spray that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose that is often sold under the brand name Narcan.

Officials at the Alliance for Substance and Progress, or ASAP, said they are not sure why overdoses continue to be lower than a couple years ago but credited community efforts to combat substance use with helping to reduce deaths.

“Although we still specifically don’t know why it’s down, we continue to believe that all of the efforts across the community … continue to positively impact the overdose deaths,” said ASAP Executive Director Sherri Jewett.

The update from local officials came as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported final federal figures that show that nearly 108,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2022, The Associated Press reported.

Over the last two decades, the number of U.S. overdose deaths has risen almost every year and continued to break annual records — making it the worst overdose epidemic in American history, according to wire reports.

The official number for 2022 was 107,941, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, which is about 1% higher than the nearly 107,000 overdose deaths in 2021.

Earlier provisional data estimated more than 109,000 overdose deaths in 2022, but provisional data includes all overdose deaths, while the final numbers are limited to U.S. residents.

The female overdose death rate declined for the first time in five years, although the male overdose death rate continued to inch up, the report said. Males account for about 70% of U.S. overdose deaths.

The overall drug overdose death rate rose from 2021 to 2022, but the increase was so small it was not considered statistically significant, according to wire reports.

The CDC has not yet reported overdose numbers for last year, although provisional data through the first ten months of the year suggest overdose deaths continued to be stable in 2023.

Locally, officials say they are still seeing growing demand for opioid treatment. The opioid that is most commonly used illegally in Bartholomew County continues to be fentanyl.

“It is still true that almost everyone who thinks they are using heroin or taking a pain pill that was purchased off of the street is actually using fentanyl,” Terrell said. “We have rarely seen people test positive for heroin over the last two to three years, and most people who think they are taking oxycodone that was purchased off of the street are actually taking a tablet that contains fentanyl.”

“The biggest new change we have seen is the growing number of people who are testing positive for cocaine,” Terrell added. “Methamphetamine is still the most commonly used stimulant in our community by far, but more people are using cocaine than we have seen since we opened in 2019.”

In the meantime, some local officials still fear that the decline in deaths may cause a false sense of security. Others have warned that it may be only a matter of time before fatal overdoses start to climb back to the record highs set each year from 2020 to 2022, when a total of 103 people in the county died from overdoses.

“My biggest concern is that we will prematurely take our feet off of the gas, because we think we have the opioid overdose problem under control,” Terrell said. “My worry is that we will begin diverting resources and effort away from battling the drug epidemic, and overdose deaths then begin skyrocketing again.”