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County officials worry fatal drug overdoses could surge again after record number die in January

 This graph shows the total confirmed overdose deaths and type of drugs used in Cuyahoga County during January and February of 2022.  [Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner /  ]
This graph shows the total confirmed overdose deaths and type of drugs used in Cuyahoga County during January and February of 2022.

Last year the number of fatal drug overdoses in Cuyahoga County made it one of the deadliest ever. Now the county coroner is warning that this year could be even worse.

This past January was the deadliest January ever recorded in the county, with 63 confirmed overdose deaths, according to data from the medical examiner’s office. By the end of February, there were at least 99 confirmed opioid deaths — compared to 77 at that same time last year, said Medical Examiner Dr. Tom Gilson.

2021 was a bad year for overdose deaths — about 700 people died. That was significantly more than the annual average of about 550 fatal overdoses reported in the county in the preceding years, Gilson said.

“Seven hundred is a bad development, and the concern is that 2022 is going to reflect more of that,” Gilson said. “It doesn’t look like it’s off to a good start.”

2017 remains the worst year for overdoses in the county, with 727 reported, Gilson said. After several years of significant improvements, overdoses spiked again in 2021, likely due to factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

For example, many people were hit hard with mental health issues and financial difficulties as a result of the pandemic, and perhaps some individuals resorted to using drugs to cope, he said.

Additionally, the rise in virtual health care may have created new barriers to accessing treatment and therapy for opioid use, Gilson said.

There is no specific reason overdoses rose countywide over the past two years, Gilson added.

What he does know for sure, he said, is that fentanyl — a synthetic opioid 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine — is leading the surge, as it has for years.

“It isn’t the new drugs that are driving the mortality," said Gilson. "It’s the drug we’re very familiar with, and we’ve seen for five years now, or longer."

To curb this concerning trend, Gilson said it is imperative that drug users seek treatment. Gilson also encourages people who plan to use drugs to do so in the company of others in case something goes wrong and they need to call for medical help. He also advises people to always carry naloxone, which can reverse a fentanyl overdose.

The majority of people who die from an overdose — between 70% and 80% — are using alone, Gilson said.

“I can’t say everything’s preventable, but some fraction of those deaths have to be preventable,” he said.

Officials are finalizing their report on March 2022’s overdose statistics, although Gilson said anecdotal evidence showed that deaths have ticked down slightly.

“As we come out of some of these isolating practices around the pandemic, hopefully people can get back into things that pushed that number down to the 500s for the last three years, [like] access to treatment,” Gilson said.

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