By MAX FILBY
Accidental drug overdoses took the most lives on record in Ohio and Hancock County in 2015.
Ohio had 3,050 of its residents die of a drug overdose last year, an average of eight per day, according to a report released Thursday by the Ohio Department of Health.
State Rep. Robert Sprague called the statistics “sobering” during a news conference. Sprague has spent much of his time in the Statehouse working on legislation to curb the heroin and opioid epidemic.
Ohio’s overdose deaths in 2015 were up more than 20 percent from 2014, when 2,531 people lost their lives to overdoses, according to the state.
More than a third of the overdose deaths reported last year, 1,155, were considered “unintentional” and involved the synthetic opioid fentanyl that is commonly mixed with heroin. Fentanyl deaths more than doubled from the previous year.
Authorities who had been targeting prescription painkiller abuse say the problem has changed quickly in recent years as users turned to heroin, fentanyl and even stronger drugs.
Sprague compared the fight against opioids to playing “whack-a-mole” because once one problem is solved, another seems to pop up.
He mentioned shutting down pill mills throughout the state as one example. As pill mills were mostly closed, fentanyl became more common.
“Unfortunately we’re ground zero for this epidemic,” Sprague said.
Sprague’s home county also suffered its worst year on record for overdose deaths.
Hancock County set a record for drug overdose deaths with 13 people dying of an accidental overdose in 2015, according to the state report. The county’s previous record of 11 was recorded in 2014 by the state.
“It’s a tremendous, personal cost to our community when you think about those 13 lives,” Sprague said.
Some surrounding counties fared worse. Wood County had 22 overdose deaths in 2015, and Allen County had 18.
Hardin County had eight overdose deaths in 2015, while Wyandot County had two, Putnam County had four and Seneca County had nine.
Precia Stuby, executive director of the Hancock County Board of Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services, said while Hancock County had an increase of two overdose deaths in 2015, other counties had a bigger increase. Wood County and Allen County each had six more overdose deaths last year than in 2014, according to the state report.
Dr. Michael Flaherty, a Pittsburgh-based physician who has consulted with the ADAMHS board and other area organizations about addiction, said the increased deaths in 2015 were expected.
Measures taken by the federal government, at the Statehouse and on the local level have not been in effect long enough to have a significant impact, Flaherty said.
It may not be until 2017 that overdose deaths begin to decrease from year to year, Flaherty said.
It’s an epidemic that can only be effectively addressed through cooperation and a combination of prevention, early intervention, up-to-date treatment, and life-saving measures such as the opioid overdose antidote naloxone, said Dr. Mark Hurst, the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services’ medical director.
“This isn’t an issue that, as state departments and agencies, we’re going to be able to solve unilaterally,” Hurst said. “It requires communities, it requires families, it requires individuals, it requires schools. If we’re really going to make good progress and sustain progress on this, we need all hands on deck.”
Gov. John Kasich said he believes the state is making progress, despite the latest record death toll.
“It makes me feel terrible, but what makes me feel good is how many people did not die because of our efforts,” he said Thursday at a judicial summit on opioids in Cincinnati involving authorities from nine states.
He said stepped-up prescription monitoring and new guidance for prescribers helped sharply reduce opioid doses dispensed in the state, and said Ohio has other action in the works to curb prescription drug misuse.
He also wants more discussion about the dangers of drugs reaching children during their school years. The previous generation grew up accustomed to relatively easy access to prescription painkillers, which has fueled the overdose epidemic, the governor said.
“These are battles that we need to win so that we can wage a more effective war,” Kasich said.
Ohio has been among the states hardest hit by the overdose epidemic. Fentanyl overdose deaths spiked so quickly last year that scientists with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention visited the state to study the problem.
States release overdose data at various times, and Ohio’s rank nationally isn’t yet available.
A record 47,055 people died from drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2014, according to the latest figures from the CDC. The number was up 7 percent from 2013, spurred by large increases in heroin and opioid painkiller deaths.
Officials express hope of making headway, citing progress in expanding access to life-saving naloxone and curbing prescription opiate abuse.
Ohio emergency medical personnel last year administered nearly 19,800 doses of naloxone, known by the brand name Narcan. Naloxone can be dispensed by pharmacists without a prescription under changes made in 2015, and more than 900 pharmacies around the state now offer it.
Meanwhile, guidance issued for prescribers helped reduce the number of opioid doses given to patients last year by 81 million compared with 2011 figures, decreasing the leftover drugs that might be available for abuse, according to the state report.
State officials said their strategies to tackle the problem during the next year include working with lawmakers to stiffen penalties for illicit fentanyl sales and to make it easier to establish opiate treatment programs.
They are also expanding a public awareness campaign and an addiction treatment program made available through drug courts.
Other plans will support local drug task forces and step up drug-seizure efforts. In addition, the state is integrating an automated prescription reporting system into more electronic medical records and pharmacy dispensing systems, to cut down on doctor-shopping by addicts.
Many of the responses aren’t drug-specific, meaning they could still be useful however the problem evolves next, said Dr. Mary DiOrio, the state medical director.
“We’re really going to be agile enough that we can address things that come up,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.