When Barberton paramedics noticed a sudden spike in opioid overdoses on Wednesday, the city moved quickly.

Hours after the first of what a fire department spokesman called a “rash” of cases, Barberton sent a cellphone alert to residents enrolled in its notification system.

The notification warned that an especially dangerous fentanyl-heroin batch might be circulating and asked friends and relatives of at-risk individuals to keep tabs on them.

Barberton’s brush with a bad batch seems to run counter to recent experience with opioid abuse in the Akron-Canton region.

Summit County Public Health records show a dramatic decline in overdose deaths, most of them attributed to opioid products (heroin, fentanyl, carfentanil, prescription painkillers), from a peak of 310 such deaths in 2016 to 105 in 2018.

Among the county’s “hot spots” — where opioid overdoses are concentrated — are parts of northern Barberton. The 44203 ZIP code is one of the county’s worst.

This year, according to Summit County Public Health, year-to-date emergency room visits have declined in most ZIP codes in Summit County.

But not in Barberton.

In 2018, for instance, the 44203 ZIP code Barberton shares with New Franklin and Norton registered 68 overdoses — more than any other ZIP code in the county.

Jerry Craig, executive director the Summit County Alcohol, Drug Addiction & Mental Health Services Board, said that the opioid crisis remains real, despite statistics showing a decrease in deaths and emergency room visits the last couple of years.

“I believe that the problem continues to be as significant as it has been [in the past],” Craig said Friday. “We’ve seen fentanyl become a very common drug in our community.”

Craig said fentanyl is being used to lace drugs other than heroin, including cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana.

Craig said the efficacy of the alert sent by Barberton can be considered from different points of view.

On the one hand, users may be drawn by the news of a strong mix on the streets. But he said, people could also modify their behavior based on the news by proceeding with greater caution or avoiding an especially harmful batch altogether.

Ellen Lander Nischt, city of Akron spokeswoman, said that the Akron Police Department — like Barberton — will issue an alert if it becomes aware of a spike in overdoses.

"We have done it in the past when we became aware of the increase in overdoses in July of 2017 with carfentanil," she said.

 

 

Making progress

Since opioid-related deaths peaked in 2013, a countywide effort to attack the problem has resulted in vastly reduced deaths and emergency room visits. One key reason may be the wide availability of naloxone, which is used to treat overdoses.

Although he’s reluctant to make a definitive cause-and-effect statement on naloxone’s role, Craig said that he believes it’s had an effect.

“I can tell you that since 2014, we’ve made an effort to get more Narcan in the community,” he said. “And we’ve seen fewer deaths.”

In Summit County, five Project DAWN clinics offer overdose education along with distribution of naloxone, also known by brand name Narcan. Four of those locations are in Akron, and one is in Barberton.

Since 2016, area overdose deaths attributed to heroin and carfentanil have declined precipitously.

Carfentanil reached a peak in 2017, with nearly 50 percent of overdose death records mentioning the deadly animal tranquilizer as a cause. In 2018, that figure had declined to about 10 percent. Heroin plummeted from about 50 percent in 2013 to about 5 percent in 2018.

Fentanyl’s decline, however, has been much more gradual. After reaching a peak of about 78 percent in 2016, it was still being attributed as a cause of death in nearly 70 percent of overdoses last year, according to Summit County Public Health statistics.

And methamphetamines, sometimes mixed with fentanyl, have made a comeback.

The lingering crisis of opioids may have reduced media attention, but health care professionals haven't let up. On Friday, the University of Akron will host “Addictions & Opiates: What’s New, What’s Next."

Greta Lax, director of the Akron-Region Interprofessional Area Health Education Center at the University of Akron, said interest in the daylong conference has been strong.  Visit https://uakron.edu/ahec-conference for more information or to register.

"The diversity of the registrants is incredible," Lax said. "We have around 340 people registered: faculty and students from UA and surrounding universities, health care providers, counselors and administrators, police and fire personnel, as well as people from federal, city and county levels.”

Craig said that any longtime improvements will require a multifaceted approach involving the wider community.

“It’s important for us to invest in prevention services,” Craig said. “There’s [more] than opiates … We need the community to understand there are other risks.”

 

 

Alan Ashworth can be reached at 330-996-3859 or emailed at aashworth@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter: @newsalanbeaconjournal.