A newspaper survey of Ohio county coroners has found more than 4,000 people died from drug overdoses last year in a state among the hardest hit by a heroin and opioid epidemic.
The Columbus Dispatch reported Sunday that the state's 4,149 unintentional fatal overdoses in 2016 are a 36 percent increase from the previous year when just over 3,000 deaths were reported.
Citing an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation that used statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the newspaper said Ohio led the nation in the total number of fatal overdoses in 2014 and 2015.
The increase is being attributed to heroin and the powerful synthetic opioids fentanyl and carfentanil. Last year's total is expected to go higher as coroners tabulate final numbers. The newspaper reported that coroners in six smaller counties did not provide overdose numbers.
Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, far outpaced the rest of the state with 666 deaths in 2016 with the majority of those deaths blamed on fentanyl use.
William Denihan, the outgoing chief executive officer of the Cuyahoga County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board, called the opioid epidemic a "tsunami."
"We've done so much, but the numbers are going the other way," Denihan said. "I don't see the improvement."
In Akron's Summit County, nearly half of its 308 overdose deaths last year were attributed to the use of carfentanil, a powerful opioid that's supposed to be used as a tranquilizer for large animals. Gary Guenther, an investigator for the Summit County Medical Examiner's Office, said addicts clamor to get the lethal drug when they hear it's on the streets.
"It doesn't make any sense," Guenther said.
The state Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services said Ohio's 2015 fatal overdose numbers could have been much higher were it not for lives saved with the opioid overdose antidote, naloxone.
While Ohio was one of the leaders in shutting down "pill mills" that sold prescription opioids like oxycodone, health officials say it has led to addicts switching to more powerful opioids. Dr. Mark Hurst, medical director for Ohio's health and mental health departments, said that while naloxone has helped prevent deaths, it's not the answer to solving opioid addiction.
"This is going to turn around," Hurst said. "I wish I could tell you when it's going to turn around."
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