The county ended last year with 33 overdose deaths, marking a 25 percent decrease over the record amount of fatal overdoses recorded in Howard County in 2017.
It's still to be seen, however, whether the drop indicates a lasting improvement in Howard County caused by increased addiction services.
“Although our goal would be to have zero overdose deaths, we have come a long way in 12 months and appear to be headed in the right direction,” said Howard County Coroner Steven Seele, noting that 16 of last year’s fatalities involved opiates, a drop from the 26 opiate cases in 2017.
Howard County Commissioner Paul Wyman said one reason for the sharp drop in overdose cases can be traced to a new program launched in May called Turning Point Systems of Care.
The program is a collaborative effort between the medical, mental health and faith-based communities, and connects people struggling with mental health issues, substance abuse and addiction to those who can help them.
Since the initiative launched, the program has connected 305 clients to counselors, service providers and community outreaches to get them treatment and support for their issues.
Wyman said Turning Point has also helped lessen the stigma attached to addiction and mental health issues, making it easier for people to reach out for help. He said that, in turn, has led to fewer people overdosing.
“At Turning Point, we’re really pleased to see the 25-percent decrease,” Wyman said. “We believe that’s the result of what we’re doing, along with other groups and people who are working hard to help people with mental health and drug addiction issues.”
Seele pointed to the county’s drug court programs, the actions of first responders and the national attention given to this epidemic as also playing a role in the shrinking overdose numbers.
“Hopefully the momentum will continue into 2019,” he said.
However, Howard County’s drug crisis remains a crucial health and public safety concern. Last year’s total, despite the decline, is the third-highest in county history.
The 44 overdose fatalities in 2017 marked the deadliest year for overdoses ever in Howard County. It surpassed the previous high of 34 in 2015.
That drug crisis endures as a calamity that stretches across the state and nation and shows no real sign of a lasting resolution. And it will take more than one year of improvement for Howard County to feel comfortable about its own epidemic.
Such optimism was expressed previously, in 2016, when the county also saw a double-digit decrease in overdose deaths. But that buoyancy was quickly ended when the breadth of the local crisis — including heroin, Fentanyl, prescription medication, methamphetamine and more — emerged in full in the early months of 2017.
Wyman said the 25-percent drop in overdoses last year is something to celebrate, “but the reality is we still have a lot of work to do as a community.”
“We want to believe it’s a trend, now that we have a comprehensive strategy to address this issue in our community,” he said. “The downside is that drug epidemics can flare up at any time. A bad batch of drugs can come into the community, or a new drug can hit the area.”
The use of the overdose-reversing drug Narcan by first responders and medics also lines up with the drop in overdose deaths.
In 2018, there were only two “overdose Narcan” calls for service, which means an overdose call in which police or fire agencies respond and administer Narcan before medics arrive, according to Howard County 911 Communications Director Gary Bates. In 2017, there were a dozen of those calls in the county.
The Howard County Health Department also distributed fewer Narcan kits last year, handing out 68 in 2018 compared to 150 kits in 2017, according to Jennie Cauthern, the county’s public health project coordinator.
“In general, more people who are ‘concerned citizens’ come in for training and kits than people who have loved ones in active addiction,” she said in an email.
Even with the decrease in opioid deaths last year, addiction and drug-related deaths remain at the forefront of Howard County’s political, social and even economic conversations.
Over the last seven years, more than 200 people have died in Howard County following some kind of drug abuse. In many cases, that abuse involved opioids.
In comparison, Howard County had 65 automobile accident fatalities from 2012 to 2017, according to the Indiana University Public Policy Institute and the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute.Howard County saw a steep decrease in overdose deaths in 2018, according to statistics released by the Coroner’s office.