Amidst pandemic, Ohio sees record overdose deaths

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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WJW) – “He was doing well, and then it happened, and we didn’t find out for three days.”

Those are the words of a broken-hearted mother. Paula Novak lost her son Taylor to an opioid overdose when he was just 23-years-old.

“It just took hold, and it didn’t let go,” she said.

Taylor was a North Olmsted High School hockey player, an avid reader, and extremely social. Novak says he was introduced to drugs in college, eventually becoming addicted to heroin. He died five years ago, and the pain is still very real.

“We tried the tough love to get him to stop,” Novak says. But she explains the family didn’t have the right tools to help her son cope.

Tragically, during the coronavirus pandemic, many Ohio families are now grieving like Paula’s. Not just because of deaths due to COVID-19; in 2020 something else was silently taking lives.

“Overdose deaths were worse than they’ve ever been it was though we hadn’t done anything at all.”

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost

“Overdose deaths were worse than they’ve ever been it was though we hadn’t done anything at all,” says Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost.

Yost was referring to the years of work and millions of dollars spent to try and curb the opioid epidemic in Ohio.

Yost has now put out a warning, urging vigilance by family members and friends of those struggling with addiction.

According to the Attorney General Yost’s Scientific Committee on Opioid Prevention and Education (SCOPE), more people died from opioid overdoses in the Spring of 2020 than ever before in Ohio—topping a previous historical high reached in 2017.

Cuyahoga County’s Medical Examiner, Dr. Tom Gilson, points out while Cuyahoga County saw a spike in May of last year, the historical high of overdose deaths reached in the second quarter of 2020 was not sustained throughout the rest of the year.

Scott Osiecki, President and CEO of the Alcohol, Drug Addiction & Mental Health Services Board of Cuyahoga County, explains that while the attention of the world was on coronavirus, the opioid epidemic was still ongoing.

The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s office projects least 600 deaths because of overdoses in the county in 2020, more than the 582 in 2019 and 550 in 2018 but fewer than the 727 reported in 2017.

“The stress of the pandemic causes people to self-medicate and that’s whether with drugs or alcohol,” he said.

Right now, drugs are often laced with deadly synthetics like fentanyl. The ADAMHS Board is so concerned about the prevalence of fentanyl it has a warning on the front page of its website.

“People think they might be buying like a Xanax or Percocet from somebody, but actually we are finding out that’s fentanyl, Osiecki explained.

“If it’s pure fentanyl and the person took it for the first time, they could possibly die of an overdose from that,” he continued.

The Cuyahoga County crime lab, which tests drugs seized by police, reported 1,720 seizures of fentanyl by law enforcement in 2020, compared to 1,980 in 2019. On the other hand, seizures of Methamphetamine were up to 2,494 in 2020 compared to 1,372 in 2019.

The attorney general believes struggling addicts also had more ability to buy drugs during the pandemic, which may have contributed to the surge in deaths.

“We put a lot of money out there with the stimulus and response to the pandemic and you know, frankly, putting a lot of money in the hands of someone who is addicted or maybe is in recovery is a dangerous thing,” Yost said.

(216)623-6888

ADAMHS Board 24-hour Addiction and Mental Health Crisis Hotline

But even more so, the loneliness that so many felt during 2020 – and still today— was likely a factor.

“It got worse because of the isolation, social distancing, we were all told to stay home,” Yost said.

Novak, who knows the needs of someone seeking recovery firsthand, agrees.

“An addict needs to talk to someone, they need constant reassuring from their support group,” she said.

Osiecki explained people who may have lost a job or loved one to the pandemic may have been more susceptible to drugs or alcohol.

The ADAMHS Board has responded in several ways. Counseling is now online in a virtual format, there is a 24-hour addiction and mental health crisis hotline, and drug test strips for fentanyl are available, too.

On the law enforcement side, the efforts have not stopped over the last several years. Federal and state agents are constantly hunting dealers, making several big raids of heroin and fentanyl in 2020.

In March the Medina and Summit County Major Drug Task Interdiction Task Force seized 6.6 pounds of fentanyl and in August more than a thousand Oxycodone pills were taken from a hotel intended to be transported from Akron to Detroit.

BCI recently found fentanyl in two drug seizures made in Maple Heights in October.

“We’ve got fentanyl coming in from China, fentanyl coming in across the border at Mexico, we need to bring the hammer down not on the addicts who really have limited ability to deal with their addiction on their own, we need to go after the purveyors of poison,” Yost said.

Experts agree the most important thing is for families in pain to open up.

“Tell your story because somebody else has been there, I know that I wish I would have done that, maybe we would have had a different outcome,” Novak said.

There is help available via the ADAMHS Board 24-hour Addiction and Mental Health Crisis Hotline: 216-623-6888.

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