Two or three Lorain County residents die each week of an overdose, according to coroner Stephen Evans.
It’s a grim and mounting number. And the death toll here contributes to the eight Ohioans who die every day — or five people per hour nationwide — from opioid overdoses.
Few people have been shaken by the epidemic like Evans. In a March 15 meeting of the Wellington Kiwanis, he talked about how the drug war has changed his life.
“I’ve been out to dinner with my wife and seen people who I know have a heroin problem,” the coroner said. “My wife asks how I know, and I tell her you can see the track marks. You can see it in their faces.”
Evans shared the newest numbers released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which paint a discouraging picture.
Reported opioid overdoses rose 30 percent in 45 states last year. In Ohio, the rate jumped by 25 to 49 percent, according to a color-coded map of the country.
The death rate could be much higher, however, without naloxone.
Sold under the brand name Narcan, the drug started making a big difference in 2013 when Evans’ office helped pioneer the practice of having emergency responders carry it. The effort was branded Project DAWN, or Deaths Averted With Naloxone.
Evans said 60 people were successfully revived during Project DAWN’s first year in operation, which is a 92 percent success rate.
“Since that first year, we’ve saved hundreds and hundreds more,” he said. “We started to not look at the problem of cops and criminals anymore, a paradigm shift. It turned to a relationship between lifesavers and victims. People were no longer afraid to call the police for help. I got calls about it from all over Ohio, the U.S., and even some from international departments.”
This past December, Lorain County joined a number of municipalities in filing a lawsuit against pharmaceutical manufacturers. It alleges they engaged in racketeering and a purposely deceptive campaign to hide how addictive opioids are in treating pain.
A recent study sponsored by the Nord Family Foundation said opioid overdoses cost Lorain County roughly $200 million in 2016 alone, including the cost of response, treatment, and lost wages.
“It all started in the 1990s with pain pills being marketed like this,” Evans said. “That’s also when we first started seeing a spike in deaths from prescriptions. You had the market being flooded with these narcotic medicines. Companies like Purdue would come out with these studies saying the pills were safe and non-addicting. They went to the U.S. government and said doctors were under-prescribing pain medication.”
According to an investigation by the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, drug distributors shipped 20.8 million pain pills to two pharmacies in Williamson, W.Va., between 2008 and 2015. The small Appalachian town is home to just 3,000 people.
“So the government, in their wisdom, made pain a fifth vital sign,” said Evans. “They decided to start paying doctors and hospitals based on how they prescribe and find hospitals culpable if they don’t relieve pain. They passed all of these laws and rules encouraging more prescriptions. Now look that’s happened.”
“We’ve always had heroin and crack,” he said. “Then in the 1990s and early-2000s we all of the sudden had so many more people dying from these narcotic pills. Up until 2011, it was the pills killing most people, not heroin or fentanyl. We were also discovering as the decade went along this wasn’t just a problem in the inner city of Lorain and Elyria anymore. This was a problem in Wellington, Grafton, LaGrange, all over.”
Evans said economic downturns in states like Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee over the past 15 years have created an atmosphere ripe for substance abuse and overdoses.
“I grew up in Lorain and it was a thriving, beautiful place to live,” he said. “It was a hardworking, blue collar place. I loved it. We had about 20 Catholic churches and jobs galore.”
“Now Lorain is a shell,” Evans said. “It’s just been crushed and it’s the same in Kentucky and West Virginia. I was gone from Lorain for 15 years and when I got back I just couldn’t believe the change that had occurred. People are scared and depressed, and that can definitely lead to drug use.”
Jonathan Delozier can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @DelozierNews on Twitter.