Northeast Ohio's Opioid Epidemic Takes New, Deadly Turn

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by Sarah Jane Tribble

Cuyahoga County warned against a deadly new opioid Friday, saying the number of deaths are astonishing

For years, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty and County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Gilson have had fever charts with lines of opioid deaths climbing upwards. They've watched as more and more addicts succumb even as dealers are arrested, and new techniques are created to save lives. 

But now, as McGinty explains, there's something different happening. 

"We owe it to the users, to their families to let them know they are being conned here. There's a fake pill out there and we think that's why this giant spike in deaths." 

Heroin deaths in Cuyahoga County decreased by over 7%, to 183 in 2015, the lowest number of fatalities since 2012. However, the fentanyl death total for 2015 nearly tripled from 2014, with 89 ruled cases, with 41 of those cases containing both heroin and fentanyl.

The trend is continuing in 2015. The county reported 21 opioid deaths in January and of those, 19 were due to a newer street drug called Fentanyl. It's many times stronger than heroin.

Officials say if the deaths keeps pace, the county is on track to reach a record 400 deaths from opioid overdoses this year. In 2015, there were 232 deaths. 

McGinty and Gilson say most of the deaths are white middle aged males. Many, officials say, likely became addicted to pain pills after a surgery or injury. 

The addicts who are dying likely think they are buying oxycodone, but they're not, McGinty says. 

"To anyone who has ever used an oxycodone, they are a little blue pill with the 30 mark on it and you think that's what you're getting. Instead you're getting a very, very powerful fentanyl drug which can kill you. One dose can kill you."

McGinty says educating the public is the key to fixing this problem. Over the past two years, the prosecutor's office has invested $250,000 in advertising and launching the Let' web site. 

"It's quite a surprise to the user," McGinty says. "We want their families to know, we want doctors to know and, you know, it's a medical emergency."


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