Coroner: A 'deadly problem persists.' Overdose driving hundreds to early grave

Dr. Anahi Ortiz is the Franklin County coroner.

It appears now that we are past the eye of the COVID-19 storm, but the damage from the past two-and-a-half years certainly remains.

Differently from a natural storm that takes down trees, powerlines and buildings, it’s the health and wellness of our loved ones that the pandemic battered.

In early August of this year, my office released its 2021 Drug Overdose Fatalities Data Brief showing that the number of overdose deaths in Franklin County remains in line with 2020 levels. That’s when Franklin County saw a record 859 overdose deaths — a stunning 54% increase from the previous record year (556 in 2019).

Columbus Conversation planned about opioid overdose crisis

How to attend: Dispatch presents Columbus Conversations: "What is the state of the opioid crisis in our community?" 6 p.m. Wednesday

None of us knew exactly what 2021 would bring, but in a year where life looked much closer to normal for many of us, 825 more of our fellow county residents lost their lives to overdose.

This deadly problem persists, and it’s not just in Franklin County. In 2021, Cuyahoga County also saw a record number of overdose deaths and, based on projections, 2022 is expected to be even worse.

People ask me all the time for my analysis of the issues our people are facing; My short answer is that it’s complex.

It’s clear that the isolation, job loss, uncertainty and fear that COVID-19 brought have had impacts we still haven’t been able to shake. On top of all that, 2021 saw a deadly new development in street drugs: More and more are laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is much cheaper and exponentially more potent than other more commonly used drugs.

More:Franklin County Coroner: 2020 overdose deaths through September up 45% over year before

Dr. Anahi Ortiz is the Franklin County coroner.
Dr. Anahi Ortiz is the Franklin County coroner.

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Of the 825 overdose deaths Franklin County faced in 2021, 89% involved drugs with traces of fentanyl. Illegal drug producers use it to spread their product further and hook their customers faster. Users of these drugs, and sometimes even the dealers, have no idea that fentanyl is present in the product. This tragic ignorance lies behind many of the overdose deaths we’re seeing.

On the left, a lethal dose of heroin; on the right, a lethal dose of fentanyl, which is 50% to 100% more portent than heroin.
On the left, a lethal dose of heroin; on the right, a lethal dose of fentanyl, which is 50% to 100% more portent than heroin.

More:Doctors: Assume all illegal drugs are laced with fentanyl, other poisonous substances

With the emergence of fentanyl, the opioid epidemic has taken on a new dimension: no longer only an addiction crisis but also an issue of awareness. Are people knowingly ingesting this lethal substance? The overdose numbers tell me not always. With a drug like fentanyl in the picture, a single use can result in the end of a life.

More:5 things you can do to help prevent drug overdose-related deaths

So what can we do? It’s impossible to stop drug use altogether, but there are a number of actions we can take:

In 2020, Ohio’s overdose death rate was fourth-highest in the country. The crisis isn’t lost on our state administration, which announced $169 million in investments to strengthen Ohio’s system of behavioral health services, but there is still more work to be done.

More:Roberts: Fentanyl 'unknowingly and silently kills people.' That doesn't have to happen.

In life after isolation, let’s lift up those around us who we know might be struggling.

Let’s tell our children and peers about the new dangers these drugs present, and that they often don’t give second chances. Our actions are what will help us repair the damage that has been done. And here in September, National Recovery Month, what we want to be able to move toward is recovery.

Dr. Anahi Ortiz is the Franklin County coroner.

This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Dr. Anahi Ortiz: State of opioid crisis in Franklin County, Columbus