Summit County saw a record number of fatal overdoses in 2016, according to estimates by the Medical Examiner’s Office.
Authorities won’t know exactly how many died of drug overdoses in 2016 until the spring or possibly later, but Chief Investigator Gary Guenther said he anticipates between 225 and 250 once tests are completed and causes of death are confirmed.
That means there was at least an 11.3 percent increase over 2015, which Guenther said logged about 200 fatal drug overdoses.
Guenther said he didn’t have specific data on other causes of death in 2016 just yet, but 225 would be markedly more deaths than those caused by car crashes or homicides last year.
“This is definitely way more,” Guenther said.
Last year, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation reported that Ohio led the nation in 2014 with 2,106 opioid overdoses — 7.4 percent of the 28,647 deaths reported nationwide that year. California ranked second with 2,024 deaths and New York was third with 1,739.
A 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report said Ohio and Kentucky both had 29.9 overdose deaths per 100,000, making them third and fourth in the nation in 2015. West Virginia at 41.5 per 100,000 deaths was ranked No. 1, followed by New Hampshire at No. 2 with 34.3 per 100,000.
Summit County’s 2016 record can be attributed largely to the introduction of carfentanil to the local drug market. The drug, which is legally used by zoos to sedate large animals such as elephants, is incredibly lethal to humans but boasts a strong high that nonetheless attracts abusers of opioids, which include prescription pills and heroin.
Carfentanil surfaced in Akron in early July. A surge of overdoses alerted officials, who originally suspected it to be the less dangerous but still lethal fentanyl. Testing revealed it was actually carfentanil, and the death toll continued to spike.
An identical trend can be spotted in overall overdose data compiled by the Summit County Public Health Department. The data tracks both lethal and nonlethal accidental overdoses on prescription and illicit drugs.
Overdoses spiked in July, August and September at almost 400 per month before dropping off the rest of the year. By December, the monthly total had declined to 233 — much lower than the peak but still more than double the monthly totals before carfentanil appeared.
The majority of those who overdosed were Akron residents. Despite making up 37 percent of the county’s population, residents of Akron made up three-fifths of the county’s overdoses.
In total, the county logged 2,423 overdoses in 2016. That means a Summit County resident accidentally overdosed on an illicit or prescription drug every 3.6 hours, on average.
And the county’s totals are probably low estimates.
Rich Marountas, the department’s epidemiologist, said the county is certainly missing some nonlethal overdoses because the numbers only include people who went to emergency rooms after overdosing. People who overdosed at home but never called 911 or who died before getting there aren’t counted, and neither are those who leave ERs before being admitted to the system.
“My numbers are definitely an underestimation of what’s really going on,” he said.
Nick Glunt can be reached at 330-996-3565 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickGluntABJ and on Facebook @JournoNickGlunt .