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3/12/2019 5:03:00 PM
New monitoring system detected Clark County overdose spike

Aprile Rickert, News and Tribune Crime and Courts Reporter

CLARK COUNTY — Health officials in Clark County are asking the public to be alert to more potent strains of fentanyl-laced drugs in the area after a spike in overdoses late last week.

The Clark County Health Department issued a public health notice Saturday afternoon to alert the community of increased overdose activity, which had started about mid-week, health officer Dr. Eric Yazel said. The notice states that while verification is still pending, it is believed the increase may be due to a drug supply with higher fentanyl content than is usual in the area. 

Yazel said the roughly five cases over five days last week may include multiple fatalities, pending coroner's results; this is about the same number the county has been averaging in a month's time over the past year. In February, the health department reported a total of 50 suspected overdose death cases in Clark County in 2018, which was 15 percent lower than 2017 and the lowest total since 2013. 

He said the number of overdoses last week were enough that he believed it warranted an alert to help stop subsequent overdoses if there is a stronger strain of drugs in the area. He said Monday he was not aware of more overdoses since the weekend.

"It's a fine line," he said. "We don't want to get alarm fatigue or be the little boy who cried wolf, but we also feel like when we have a certain amount of information we need to notify the public as well."

The alert was the first time the county has had enough information to activate the Everbridge system, an emergency notification program designed to monitor and send resources in overdose situations, funded by a grant awarded last year by the Indiana State Department of Health.

Yazel said prior to this monitoring system, the county had to rely on overdose data after the fact. Now, working with law enforcement, emergency responders, health officials and other community members, including people who are actively using drugs, the department monitors where and when overdoses may be occurring, which allows them to respond to overdose trends in real time. This could mean getting emergency treatment as quickly as possible, such as naloxone, an overdose reversal drug that is carried by most local first responders and available to the public at the health department and Clark County syringe exchange site.

"We don't want data that we get monthly and find out that two weeks ago there was this overdose cluster that should have been addressed," he said. 

The health department also recently launched the free Pulse Point app, which allows people with CPR training to be alerted when there is a person nearby in cardiac arrest and where the closest AED machine is; the idea is that the individuals may be closer than emergency personnel when such an emergency arises.

Carolyn King, member of grassroots community drug education and resource group Clark County CARES, said she and other are concerned with the increase last week, which Yazel said includes multiple overdoses at one location.

"There's obviously some bad batches out there," King said. The group met Monday and later asked Yazel, also a member, to look into getting fentanyl testing strips to give out at the syringe exchange; those who lead the Louisville syringe exchange have also recently begun giving them out, she said.

"That's one way of harm reduction," she said, also urging people to make sure they have access to naloxone; she said people who have consumed fentanyl may require more than one dose to be revived.

"People need to be very, very careful and keep naloxone handy if they are using," King said. "And people who care about people who are using need to make sure they're stocked up because these happen occasionally with very deadly batches and you just don't know what you're going to get."

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