Drugs killed fewer in Stark in 2017

CANTON  Drug overdose deaths in Stark County dropped 27 percent last year, even as drugs took an ever-greater toll on other Ohio communities.

Put another way, 32 fewer locals died from unintentional overdoses in 2017, the first decrease in four years, according to a count by the Stark County Coroner's office.

Why did fewer people die and what does it mean for the opioid-fueled crisis? Area experts aren’t sure, but they’re encouraged while they keep a wary eye for any rebound in deaths.


A possible reason for the decrease is widespread use of the overdose antidote naloxone, also called Narcan, by first responders and the public.

The county also added detox beds, increased access to medication-assisted treatment, started law-enforcement teams to follow-up with overdose survivors and developed a new drug-awareness curriculum for local schools.

The diversity of efforts makes it difficult to attribute the drop in deaths to one strategy.

Stark County Mental Health and Addiction Recovery Chief Executive John Aller said it looked as if treating opioids as a public health crisis, and not just an addiction issue or law enforcement problem, was starting to pay off.

But he was cautious.

“We’ll feel more confident when we get another year under our belt,” Aller said.

Overdose deaths down

The Coroner’s Office has tallied 86 overdose deaths in 2017, and a final ruling is pending on another suspected overdose. The coroner had 119 overdose deaths in 2016.

The last time the number of overdoses deaths dropped year-to-year was 2013, and that was by two deaths.

Even with the 27 percent drop, 2017 was Stark’s second deadliest year for overdoses since 2012. But in comparison to other communities, it could be a lot worse.

Columbus-area overdose deaths last year jumped 36 percent, and the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner has projected overdose deaths to rise 23 percent, surpassing 800 for the year.

Who is dying?

More than 90 percent of overdose victims in Stark last year were white (whites make up 88 percent of the population) and men accounted for 7 out of 10 deaths.

The mean age of overdose victims was 36.5 years.

Opioids caused 73 overdoses, and five other victims died with opioids in their bodies. Ninety percent of the ruled opioid deaths involved heroin or fentanyl, twice the percentage in 2012.

Canton’s 30 deaths were the most of any Stark community in 2017, but almost half the number the year before, according to an analysis of Coroner’s data by the Canton Police Department.


What do stats mean?

“For one thing our medical professionals, EMTs and paramedics are doing a fantastic job of responding to those situations,” said Lt. John Gabbard, head of Canton’s vice and narcotics unit. “Project DAWN and Narcan usage is a huge reason why we’ve seen a decrease in overdose deaths.”

Naloxone use by police and members of the public, encouraged by the U.S. Surgeon General, has been controversial in some communities because of its cost and concerns that it enables addiction.

Stark County has embraced naloxone and distributed 1,414 free kits to the public last year through Project DAWN, a state-developed program. Another 448 kits were given to law enforcement agencies.

Gabbard said law enforcement was also aggressively investigating and prosecuting traffickers, but there was room to do more.

“I think our next step is to get better at connecting those deaths with an individual trafficker and pursuing the proper charges on that trafficker,” he said.


Julie Oster Priebe, of Crisis Intervention and Recovery Center, is the county’s addiction recovery nurse navigator, a job that brings her into regular contact with overdose survivors.

She attributed the decrease in deaths to the entirety of local efforts, including the work of grassroots groups and the county’s Opioid Task Force to raise awareness.

There’s also the fact that the epidemic has killed more than 400 drug users since 2012.

“We’ve lost a lot of people and those people were using chronically and they’re not counted in our overdoses anymore,” Priebe said.

Other measures

As the number of overdose deaths has dropped, fewer people have gone to local emergency rooms for overdoses, and more sought treatment for an opioid use disorder.

Emergency room data collected by the Stark County Health Department show the rate of overdose visits peaked in the summer of 2016 and remained high until spring 2017, when the rate returned to previous levels.

The data don’t include the number of overdose victims who were revived by a civilian or medic with naloxone, but not transported to a hospital.

More people also have sought treatment. In state fiscal year 2015, 1,280 people sought treatment for opioid use disorder through Stark MHAR’s care network. The number rose to 1,601 in fiscal year 2017, and was on track to surpass 1,700 by June 30, the end of this fiscal year.


Cindy Koumoutzis, state director of the grassroots group Ohio Change Addiction Now, said she wanted to see the 27 percent decrease in deaths matched by an increase in the number of people in long-term recovery.

“We haven’t reached the ultimate goal,” Koumoutzis said. “That’s how I look at it.”

What’s next?

Keith Hochadel, president and chief executive of CommQuest Services, which operates treatment facilities throughout the county, said he’d feel more confident if overdose deaths continue to decline over the next couple of years.

“If we have two more years of this trend, we can feel better about where we are, but it doesn’t mean that it couldn’t change in a weekend,” Hochadel said.

Priebe said prevention and education are a priority, including warning the public about the danger of cocaine and methamphetamine laced with fentanyl.

“I think we’ve got a long way to go until we’re feeling like we are getting a handle on it,” Priebe said. “We just saw a light. That decrease last year was just a little light that some good things are happening, and it seems to be starting to have an effect."

Reach Shane at 330-580-8338 or shane.hoover@cantonrep.com

On Twitter: @shooverREP