The number of overdoses in Summit County this year was on the decline until last weekend.

From Friday, April 5, through Sunday, April 7, 23 residents sought ER help after overdosing — 13 on Saturday alone.

“It caused us to raise an eyebrow,” said Jerry Craig, executive director of the county’s Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board.

He said it’s too soon to say whether the unexpected spike is an anomaly or a trend.

The overdoses were spread out across ZIP codes, Craig said, so it’s unlikely the surge came from a single “bad batch,” an especially potent or toxic mix of drugs sold on the streets.

Opioids were mentioned in six of the 23 overdose cases handled in ERs. But opioids could have been involved in others, too, because hospital officials who report the numbers often don’t note what drugs were involved in overdoses.

“That’s a difficult part of this opiate epidemic,” Craig said. “You’re only as safe as what’s out on the street.”

And what’s on the street and who is using the drugs continues to evolve.

Last week, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine appointed a minority health working group to look for solutions after a new state analysis revealed soaring overdose deaths among black men.

Deaths among black men jumped by 50 percent from 2016 to 2017, compared to a 14 percent increase among white men during the same time, a state health department analysis showed.

Fewer black men in Ohio are dying from overdoses — 449 in 2017 — than white men — 2,744 in 2017 — officials said. But because black men make up a much smaller percentage of the population, their rate of death is higher.

The numbers reversed a long-standing trend in the opioid epidemic, which has primarily devastated white communities.

Black men who died tended to overdose after ingesting cocaine, which was often mixed with fentanyl, researchers said.

Cocaine is among the easiest street drugs to score in Greater Akron, according to a recently released report by the Ohio Substance Abuse Monitoring Network.

“I could close my eyes and point and find it,” said one of the people who provided information for the report, which covers Summit, Portage, Stark, Tuscarawas, and Carroll counties and includes information gathered between January and June of 2018.

But the quality of the cocaine is poor because dealers are mixing it with cheap additives like baby aspirin, baby laxatives and fentanyl, the report said.

“They’re putting fentanyl in everything, that way they can get you physically addicted to it,” one user told the study group.

Fentanyl is easy to find on the streets, too, for the people who go looking for it in the region, as is methamphetamine.

But prescription opioids like Oxycontin, Percocet and Vicodin are harder to find.

In 2016, about 80 percent of Ohioans who overdosed and died had a history of abusing prescription painkillers.

Two years later, Ohio launched a series of new rules requiring prescribers to talk to patients about nonmedication treatment, look for signs of drug abuse and other things.

Prescription painkillers “are out there, but harder to find; doctors are cracking down,” one person in the study said.

Where Summit County is headed next is not clear.

In 2016, nearly one person a day in Summit County died from a drug overdose.

That number plummeted last year, but has recently started to tick up to about three per week, said Gary Guenther, chief investigator with the Summit County Medical Examiner’s Office.

This year hospital ERs have reported a gradual decrease and then rise in the number of Summit County residents treated for overdoses. In January, ERs treated 3.9 people per day. That fell to 3.4 people in February and 3.0 in March, Craig said.

So far, April’s numbers are discouraging — with about 5 residents per day seeking overdose help.

Summit County Public Health’s latest weekly report — which included the spike in overdoses from the previous weekend — was released Friday and shows 39 people overdosed over the seven-day period, or about 5.6 per day.

That’s less than a third of the per-day average in Summit County during the peak of the epidemic in late 2016.

But it’s also a reversal, an upward trend in a problem no one wants to regain strength.

 

Beacon Journal reporter Rick Armon and The Columbus Dispatch contributed to this report. Amanda Garrett can be reached at 330-996-3725 or agarrett@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @agarrettABJ.