Howard County experienced five confirmed overdose deaths in the first quarter of 2018, a major drop from the same time period last year and a ray of hope for a community coming off its worst year for drug overdoses in county history.
Notably, a report distributed Monday by Howard County Coroner Steven Seele says that none of the five overdose fatalities included opiates. In comparison, he counted 15 overdose deaths in last year’s first quarter, 10 of which included opiate-related drugs like heroin or Fentanyl.
In total, 2017 saw a year-end count of 44 drug overdose deaths, making it by far the deadliest year for overdoses in Howard County history, surpassing the previous high of 34 in 2015.
Local officials and residents now hope the remainder of 2018 follows the first-quarter rate and bucks last year’s unprecedented trend, which motivated an intense focus by professionals across various fields in an effort to stave off the deadly crisis.
Overall, the five overdose deaths encountered by Seele from Jan. 1 through March 31 included four accidental overdoses and one suicide. There is still one case from the first quarter pending toxicology before a final determination can be made on the cause of death, noted Seele.
Toxicology reports showed non-opiate multi-substance abuse involving benzodiazepines, used primarily to treat anxiety, and other prescription medication in three of the cases. Two cases involved methamphetamine.
Two of the deaths were the result of synthetic cannabinoids, or spice, said Seele, who last year expressed “major concern” over the increased use of synthetic drugs.
But with a total lack of opiate fatalities, Howard County officials will likely move forward with a sense of optimism, however cautious, after the first of the coroner’s quarterly reports.
“I am very encouraged with the downturn in the overdose deaths this first quarter, especially the opiate-related deaths,” said Seele in a media release. “There has been great progress made in bringing our community together in combating and educating our residents about the drug epidemic. I feel the use of the Narcan by our first responders and others without doubt has reduced the deaths due to opiate overdose.
“It is my prayer that with the opening of Turning Point, Howard County Systems of Care, and the continued hard work by our first responders and our legal system, Howard County will emerge as a leader and a model community for others to follow and learn from in dealing with this epidemic that has plagued our nation.”
Turning Point will open Monday, April 30, in an office at the Family Service Association located at 618 S. Main St., announced Howard County Commissioner Paul Wyman at a public meeting Thursday.
The SOC is a collaborative effort among numerous fields – medical, mental health, faith-based and more – to fight the drug epidemic and its many causes and effects.
Also announced Thursday was the hiring of Sherry Rahl as the Turning Point navigator, the person who will directly meet with addicts and their families and subsequently find them the care they need.
Rahl, in an interview with the Tribune, said her role gives her access to a comprehensive list of addiction and mental health resources in the area. Those resources have been put into easy-to-use software she can access, and allows the Turning Point office to be a one-stop-shop in finding someone treatment, she said.
Overall, Rahl’s position is designed to alleviate the complexities of finding, contacting and connecting with addiction or mental health services.
While first-quarter Narcan statistics were not available Monday, the drug played a prominent role in the fight last year against overdose deaths.
In 2017, medics with one of the county’s two hospitals, Community Howard Regional Health, administered 124 Narcan doses. There were also a dozen calls in Howard County in which police or fire agencies responded and administered Narcan before medics arrived.
Narcan, also known as Naloxone, is an opiate antidote. Opioids include heroin and prescription pain pills like morphine, codeine, oxycodone, methadone and Vicodin. When a person is overdosing on an opioid, breathing can slow down or stop.
Narcan knocks out the opiate receptors in the brain. It is most often administered as a nasal spray. Indiana is one of 46 states where Narcan is available over the counter, and that means there may be more overdoses than those reported by first responders.
Narcan, still stigmatized in some circles, has long been promoted by medical professionals, and families of addicts are encouraged to keep a dose on hand.
“I feel like there’s still stigma in the community, that people are afraid to come and get trained,” said Howard County Public Health Project Coordinator Jennie Cauthern in a previous interview, explaining that the medication’s nasal spray makes it easy for nearly anyone to utilize.
“Statistics show that having Narcan available and widely used throughout the community does not increase drug use,” she added. “I think once people get to that point that they’re realizing by having Narcan available they are saving a life … I think they’ll be more willing to come in and have their own rescue kits available for friends and family.”
People can access Narcan by attending a training session at the Howard County Health Department, 120 E. Mulberry St. Sessions are held from 1-2 p.m. every Tuesday, or health department officials can be contacted to set up a more convenient time.