Battles have been won, but the war against heroin in Lorain County is long from over, said coroner Stephen Evans.
He has seen overdose deaths level out in 2017.
When we spoke with him in July, the coroner projected we were on pace to surge upward to a tragic 200 deaths by the year’s end.
“I’ve run out of tears,” Evans said at the time. “When you’re crying with the mom and dad that’s lost their kid, or the husband who lost his wife, or the children that lost their parents, you realize that these are all human beings. They’re just like you and me.”
Last year, Evans watched in horror as 132 bodies came into his office, lives ended by overdoses — that was a new record.
The number of opioid-related deaths for this year is still expected to reach or surpass that total, he predicts, but unlikely to hit the 200 ceiling.
Toxicology reports for several cases are still outstanding, so the exact number could fluctuate over the next few months.
Evans said his office is weeks behind on drug results because the lab is struggling to keep up with the explosive growth of combination drugs. Dealers are lacing heroin with countless analogs of fentanyl made in clandestine labs, which makes it harder to test for.
Fentanyl, which is an opioid like heroin but 10 times stronger, is largely to blame for the spike in overdose deaths. Cocaine and heroin will likely tie for second place, Evans said.
Cocaine is making a comeback. Last year, he counted 50 cocaine-related deaths.
If fentanyl continues to reign in the drug world, it could lead to 10 overdoses a week in the county, he said.
“We’re hopefully as bad as we can get, but we’re still over 10 times our historical number. We’re not seeing any let up.” Evans said.
For the first decade of the new millennium, the county averaged just 12.5 deaths.
Data released in August by the state health department showed just how scary the situation is: Overdose deaths spiked 33 percent in 2015 and 2016.
Eleven people died each day on average last year in Ohio, health officials said. That’s a record 4,050 lives snuffed out by the addiction epidemic.
Fentanyl was named as a main offender in those deaths. So was the increasing presence of carfentanil, an even more powerful opioid that has been used to sedate elephants.
The biggest problems come when dealers cross-pollinate their goods, cutting heroin or cocaine with fentanyl or carfentanil.
There is a silver lining: The state agrees with Evans’ assessment that heroin deaths are leveling off. The coroner has often argued that prescription painkillers are “heroin in pill form,” and deaths from those legitimately-prescribed medicines have declined each year from 2011 to 2016.
In mid-December, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office released preliminary numbers of drug cases that the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation had received in 2017.
“We continue to see more cases of fentanyl, fentanyl related compounds, and carfentanil in our crime lab, and the drug submissions by law enforcement are increasingly more complex and deadly,” said DeWine.
As of Dec. 14, the number of confirmed carfentanil submissions had nearly quadrupled. There has been a 380 percent increase in submissions of confirmed carfentanil compared to all of 2016. Additionally, there has been a 46 percent increase in fentanyl and fentanyl related compounds submitted so far this year from last year.
The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors has issued a public alert regarding the dangers posed by drugs currently circulating America’s streets and neighborhoods due to the ongoing opioid crisis.
Nationally in the first six months of 2017, there was a 19 percent increase in opioid submissions to crime labs as compared to all of 2016. Fentanyl cases submitted to crime labs jumped 54 percent in 2017.
Between 2012 and 2016, laboratories have witnessed a 6,000 percent increase in fentanyl cases. This increase corresponds directly with the overdose deaths being seen nationwide.
Crime labs are seeing testing take longer than in years past due to the number of cases submitted, the complexity of the cases and compounds submitted, and the dangerous nature of drugs submitted, such as fentanyl and carfentanil.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at email@example.com or @HamameNews on Twitter. Jason Hawk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @EditorHawk on Twitter.