Ohio on verge of six consecutive months of record monthly overdose deaths
The latest update in the Ohio Department of Health mortality data shows that October of 2020 was the deadliest October for overdose deaths in Ohio history, surpassing the previous record for overdose deaths that occurred in October 2016.
Some deaths are still being documented and added for August and September of 2020, creating a decent chance that those months will become the worst ever for overdose death in Ohio. If that happens, Ohio will have recorded at least six consecutive months of record-setting (and heart-breaking) levels of overdose death.
Overdose deaths have receded slightly since the historic peak was set in May of 2020. But death rates continue to be extraordinarily and aberrantly high, even for Ohio.
The nature of overdose death has changed dramatically in the last two or three years. A large share of deaths — perhaps half — are related to the user of cocaine and meth adulterated with fentanyl or a fentanyl analog. Ohio’s response to overdose is still designed as if this epidemic of death is all about people who use opioids, especially prescription opioids.
This is an outdated approach needs to be changed dramatically and fast. The idea that high levels of opioid use is the problem has never really been accurate and certainly is not today. The problem is — and always has been — Ohio has the nation’s most fentanyl contaminated drug supply. The spread of fentanyl into non-opioids (cocaine, meth and make fake pills) has been driving increased overdose death since 2017. (Note: Marijuana is safe; fentanyl-laced marijuana is a myth.)
Cocaine and meth can be problematic drugs, but they seldom caused overdose death before fentanyl moved to the supply. Now, large numbers of cocaine users — disproportionately Black Ohioans — are dying from fentanyl overdoses. Ditto meth, whose users skew white and non-urban.
Black residents now have the highest overdose death rates in Ohio. But our state’s response does not reflect that. Ohio’s overdose response is another example of a lack of health equity at both the policy and service delivery level.
In short, Ohio’s overdose epidemic — it’s NOT an opioid epidemic — has gotten worse and changed. State and local health departments are understandably consumed by COVID-19. It’s not easy to change course in the middle of a generational health crisis. But, to be honest with ourselves, the overdose epidemic changed before the coronavirus arrived and we did little to adapt. Overdose death is a large health problem — not as large as COVID-19 in the short term but probably more deadly in Ohio than COVID-19 in the long-term. As a state, Ohio needs to do more than one thing at once. The mass deaths of Ohioans who use cocaine and meth must become a prevention priority.