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Here's How Many Overdose Deaths Hamilton County Had In 2017

Tana Weingartner
Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco (at podium) speaks during a news conference detailing the local heroin epidemic.

The numbers are in, and they aren't good.

Coroner Lakshmi Sammarco, MD, reports 529 people overdosed and died in Hamilton County in 2017. That's up from 403 in 2016 and 414 in 2015.

The numbers, she says, are alarming and frightening with total overdose deaths up nearly 25 percent. "Discouraging is that the number of fentanyl items turned into the drug section or even the opiate mixtures from 2014 to 2017 is up tenfold."

Credit Hamilton County Coroner's Office

Sammarco also worries about roadway safety, citing the number of motor vehicle traffic deaths. Of 101 of those, 31 people had drugs or alcohol in their systems, she reports. She says this doesn't mean 30 percent of drivers are impaired; some may be passengers or pedestrians. "But I wonder about the number of people who are on the roads driving impaired, especially when you're seeing the number of drugs that are being turned into our drug section as well as the overdose deaths we're seeing."

There is some encouraging news, Sammarco says. "The number of Narcan doses being administered and the number of people being saved is significant. It's huge." She says the number of overdose deaths would be double or triple what it is without the drug, which acts as an antidote.

The fact that people are talking about the problem and trying to do something about it is also a positive. The county is just about ready to roll out another heroin Quick Response Team, which aims to get overdose survivors into treatment.

She also wants people to get involved in their communities. "We can't do this alone," she says. Law enforcement and first responders are doing what they can, now it's time for everyone else to help. "We need every neighborhood to keep an eye on their neighborhood to try to help us get the dealers off the streets, to try to get help to the addicts. If you see something, say something."

Why Is Hamilton County So Much Worse Than Surrounding Counties And States?

Newtown Police Chief Tom Synan is part of the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition. He's been at the forefront of the county's anti-heroin efforts for years. He explains the county's proximity to various interstates and large size make it the epicenter. Dealers work out of big cities and people come in from surrounding counties and states to buy drugs.

Resident Agent in Charge Tim Reagan with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agrees. "Unfortunately for Hamilton County, everyone comes here to get their heroin/fentanyl mixes, and typically the user will pull over right down the road and use it," he says. "They don't typically wait until they get back to these other outlying areas to use their drugs and, unfortunately, overdose in our area."

Rural locations in surrounding counties like Butler and Clermont are also ideal for drug traffickers to move their product from semi-trailers to barns with few people around to notice. That keeps supply lines, like that of the Sinaloa Cartel which federal officials recently disrupted, flowing.

Reagan and Synan say Ohio doesn't have the same systems in place to be as successful as Northern Kentucky has been. Officials in Kentucky, they point out, can take people who have overdosed and been revived with Narcan or naloxone (the generic equivalent) to a hospital or treatment facility. In Ohio, people can refuse medical treatment.

They also praise the work being done at St. Elizabeth Healthcare. "They've opened themselves up and said, 'We're going to be the leaders on addiction. We're going to start bringing people in, and we're going to treat addiction. We're also going to be that hub that can connect people to resources,'" Synan says.

"What's so significant about that is when you have a hospital system that stands up and does that, it changes the stigma. It allows other communities, other members, elected officials, other parts of the system to be able to step up and do that."

What Ohio and local communities need, he says, is state and federal resources.

What About The Death Penalty For Dealers?

Synan and Sammarco say they do not support the death penalty for drug dealers. That idea was floated Monday by President Donald Trump during a speech in New Hampshire on the opioid crisis.

"... if we don't get tough on the drug dealers, we're wasting our time. Just remember that. We're wasting our time. And that toughness includes the death penalty," the president told a crowd at Manchester Community College.

Synan, who hasn't supported the death penalty in these cases in the past, calls the idea "rhetoric that is not useful for what we're doing down here. It's not practical."

Sammarco calls the idea "a distraction" that won't help on a daily basis as first responders and others fight the epidemic.

That said, they both want strong penalties and to put dealers in jail.

Tana Weingartner earned a bachelor's degree in communication from the University of Cincinnati and a master's degree in mass communication from Miami University. Prior to joining Cincinnati Public Radio, she served as news and public affairs producer with WMUB-FM. Ms. Weingartner has earned numerous awards for her reporting, including several Best Reporter awards from the Associated Press and the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, and a regional Murrow Award. She enjoys snow skiing, soccer and dogs.