By SARA ARTHURS

Staff Writer

Drug overdose deaths decreased significantly in Hancock County in 2019, as more and more community members have carried naloxone, the drug that reverses an opioid overdose.

There are still a large number of community members who overdose, but more of them are surviving. Visits to the emergency room for overdoses changed little from 2018 to 2019, with 248 reported in 2018 and 235 in 2019. But the number of deaths decreased, with 30 in 2017, 21 in 2018 and six confirmed deaths in 2019. There are nine deaths from 2019 that are currently pending a coroner’s ruling, so the number of deaths may increase.

Gary Bright, injury prevention coordinator at Hancock Public Health, said the decrease in deaths may be due to naloxone being more widely distributed.

Naloxone, also known by the name Narcan, is a medication which blocks the effects of opioids on the brain and quickly restores breathing. However, if a person is revived with naloxone, they still need medical attention right away, because the naloxone will wear off.

University of Findlay pharmacy professor Michael Milks used this analogy in a 2017 interview with The Courier: Think of it as a parking space. In essence, the heroin cannot pull into the “parking space” because the naloxone is already there. This ultimately reverses the high, as well as the respiratory shutdown that comes with opiate overdose. With stronger drugs like fentanyl, it’s harder to get stronger opioids to let go of the “parking space.”

And naloxone will only remain in that spot for a short period of time, so it’s essential to get medical attention even after the person is revived. When the naloxone wears off, the opioid still in the person’s body will return to the spot and the person can go into a coma or die.

Naloxone will not reverse overdoses caused by other drugs such as cocaine, benzodiazepines (Xanax, Klonopin, Valium), methamphetamines or alcohol. And naloxone is harmless when given to a person who is not experiencing an opioid overdose.

Hancock Public Health distributed 496 Project DAWN kits to the general public and 183 to first responders in 2019, up from 283 to the general public and 56 to first responders in 2018. Project DAWN, which stands for Deaths Avoided With Naloxone, is a community-based overdose education and naloxone distribution program funded by an Ohio Department of Health grant.

In 2019, the health department reported 41 “known reversals” — that is, cases of someone who had a Project DAWN kit and was able to revive someone from an overdose. But more such cases may exist that haven’t been reported.

Zach Thomas, director of wellness and education for the Hancock County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services board, said in an email that another factor contributing to fewer fatalities has been the growth of the Quick Response Team, which reaches out to those who have recently overdosed. Thomas said this team has encouraged more individuals to seek treatment for substance use disorder, and the number of community members who have sought treatment has greatly increased.

But although the number of fatal overdoses is decreasing, “We want to see it at zero,” said Hancock Health Commissioner Karim Baroudi.

And Hancock County, like many other communities, is seeing the drop in opiate deaths coinciding with a rise in some drug abusers apparently switching to another drug, such as methamphetamine.

“The increase in the use of stimulant substances, such as methamphetamine and cocaine, may have contributed to the decrease in opioid overdose fatalities,” Thomas wrote. “We are working to learn as much as we possibly can about this change within the issue of substance use and addiction, trying to get ahead of it as quickly as we can.”

Baroudi said there are resources available for anyone struggling with any type of addiction. Countywide, agencies are looking at how to address addiction in general, not just opiates.

Hancock Public Health, along with the ADAMHS board, Blanchard Valley Health System, the University of Findlay pharmacy school and others, has an overdose fatality review team which reviews every case of a fatal overdose, talking to family and law enforcement and reviewing coroner’s reports to see what they might learn that could potentially help prevent another fatality.

Naloxone kits are available for free at Hancock Public Health. The agency will also provide training on how to recognize an overdose and use the naloxone. Walk-ins are OK, but it’s preferred that you call to ensure someone is available. Contact Bright at gbright@hancockph.com or 567-250-5151.

The Hancock County crisis line is 888-936-7116.

Arthurs: 419-427-8494 saraarthurs@thecourier.com

Twitter: @swarthurs

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