DARKE COUNTY – Darke County is bracing itself against a new rise of heroin-related overdose deaths each year.
In the past 10 years, prescription drugs have been partially responsible for the majority of overdose deaths in the county. However, the Darke County Coroner’s Office believes that is now changing, as heroin begins to take a more prominent role.
Through the work of Darke County Coroner Dr. Tim Kathman and his office, the county confirmed its first heroin-related death in 2007, and since that time the number has been steadily increasing.
“In the last two years, heroin has been involved in more than in more than 75 percent of our drug deaths,” said Investigator Joe VanVickle of the Darke County Coroner’s Office. “And its going up. It’s going to continually increase.”
That’s quite a change from no recorded heroin overdose deaths just six years ago.
And because many overdose cases are treated in several different locations or survive the process, VanVickle estimated that the number of drug-related overdoses could be more than five times what he sees come through his office.
“For every suspected drug death that we get in our office, there’s another half dozen or 10 or 12 that are treated in another emergency room.”
The reason for the spike comes from a number of reasons, including increased prescription drug regulation coupled with the low cost of heroin sweeping into the market.
Since 2007, the county has witnessed 15 accidental heroin overdose deaths, and the expectation is that there’s more to come.
Last year, the coroner’s office experienced its first large spike of accidental heroin overdose deaths, with six people dying from the drug.
So far in 2013, the Darke County Coroner’s Office has already has already confirmed five heroin overdose deaths, with an additional methadone death.
It also has two cases pending, which could add to that number.
And according to the coroner’s office, the accidental overdose deaths aren’t tied to any one demographic, gender, age or economic status.
“We’ve got mothers, grandmas and grandpas doing it,” said VanVickle.
Previously, the Darke County Coroner’s Office had experienced two methadone-related deaths beginning in 2004, which led to a fair amount of speculation of a growing problem.
Methadone has traditionally been used to bring heroin and narcotic users off their addictions by reducing withdrawal symptoms, however it can also be abused as a painkiller on the street.
And while heroin seems to be the newest drug of choice, prescription drugs have always stayed on the radar.
“We’re still dealing a lot with prescription drugs,” said VanVickle. “The crackdown on prescription abuse took those addicts and sent them a different direction. That’s why we have an influx of heroin. Those people that were abusing the prescription drugs went to heroin, and it’s by far cheaper.”
In 2011, the Darke County Coroner’s Office reported four accidental prescription overdose deaths, all female.
But those statistics only show an impartial view, as many overdose survivors are sent to long term care and nursing facilities with the possibility to pass away due to complications at a later date.
Often drug use can contribute to a depressed respiratory system, a lack of oxygen, and a lack of circulation, which could then lead to many other ailments including a stroke and/or heart damage.
“It’s not always immediate. There’s long-term effects,” said VanVickle.
As a result, the number of opiate-related cases that are released from hospitals to nursing homes and long-term care has increased more nearly 250 percent in the past two years, according to statistics provided by the coroner’s office.
“There are survivors who become residents of our skilled nursing facilities,” said VanVickle. “Heroin crosses multiple thresholds within the body. It’s an opiate, it’s a morphine-base. It does strange things in the brain with your receptors.”
And because overdose survivors’ ailments were caused by drug-related activity, if they pass away in the short term due to complications, their deaths will be recorded by the coroner’s office.
“Those numbers may not be reflected in our annual numbers, because we’re just now seeing an increase in our nursing home population based on those type of events,” said VanVickle.
So the overdose numbers may hit the corner’s office years later.
However, an effort to control the increasing drug activity is already long underway, and the Darke County Sheriff’s Office, Darke County Coroner’s Office and Greenville Police Department have joined in ongoing discussions to combat the growing epidemic of heroin overdoses, addiction, and trafficking in the state.
And for good reason, because the risk of heroin usage is consistently high.
“Anyone messing with it has the potential to be an overdose victim,”said VanVickle. “They never know what strength of heroin they’re buying and using.”