Ohio’s Drug Epidemic Is Becoming More Deadly Each Day

Heroin, fentanyl, and other drugs killed 11 people in Ohio a day in 2016 — more than any other place in the country

“It’s a growing, breathing animal, this epidemic.” — Getty Images
May 30, 2017 at 1:32 PM ET

The state that leads the nation in fatal drug overdoses saw a dramatic surge in the number of people killed from heroin, fentanyl, and other illicit and prescription substances last year, an analysis of local medical records found.

In Ohio, at least 4,149 residents — an average of 11 a day — died from unintentional drug overdoses in 2016, according to county coroner data compiled by the Columbus Dispatch. The figure represents a 36 percent increase from the previous year when the Buckeye State’s record 3,050 overdose deaths were by far the highest in the nation.

The mounting crisis, which has claimed lives in restaurants, movie theaters, and public libraries, also shows no signs of slowing this year. Multiple coroners told the Dispatch that fatal overdoses in 2017 are far outpacing those recorded in 2016.

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“It’s a growing, breathing animal, this epidemic,” said Dr. Lisa Deranek, an emergency room physician and coroner in Ohio’s Media County.

Heroin and prescription opioids continued to contribute to many of the fatal drug overdoses in the state last year, the Dispatch’s analysis found. But medical experts said the two substances fueling the rise in drug deaths are fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s about 100 times more powerful than morphine, and carfentanil, a powerful tranquilizer used on elephants and other large animals.

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Fentanyl’s rise in some parts of the state is frightening. For example, Cuyahoga County, which is home to Cleveland, tallied 400 fentanyl-related deaths between Nov. 21, 2015, and Dec. 31, 2016, the Dispatch reported — twice the number of fentanyl-related deaths of all previous years combined. This year, the county’s medical examiner projects there will be nearly 600 fentanyl-related deaths.

As Vocativ reported earlier this year, Ohio counties are now struggling with how to store and manage the increase in those killed by drug overdoses. Morgues in at least four of the state’s counties, including Cuyahoga, have, at times, run out room to keep dead bodies. In March, a startling uptick in the number of drug overdose deaths forced Ohio’s Stark County to bring in a cold-storage trailer to accommodate the overflow of cadavers.