Scioto County records highest overdose death rate ever by an Ohio county
Worrisome trends in many counties

The counties listed above had the highest overdose death rates in Ohio in 2019, according an a harm Reduction Ohio analysis of deaths included in the Ohio Department of Health’s mortality database through March 9, 2020.

About 92% of deaths from 2019 have been reported, so the total of overdose deaths and the overdose death rate will rise somewhat as the remaining data is finalized. However, the rankings and the 2019 pattern will remain largely the same.

The chart above shows all counties currently above the state average. A chart at the bottom of the story shows counties currently below the state average.

Heartbreaking year for Scioto County

One thing jumps out from the 2019 data: an extraordinarily high overdose death rate in Scioto County, a southern Ohio county of 80,000 whose largest city is Portsmouth. Scioto County’s overdose death rate is the highest annual death rate reported by any Ohio ever, even higher than during the heart of the carfentanil overdose surge in 2016 and 2017.

The cause of Scioto’s increase from 47 overdose deaths in 2018 to at least 80 in 2019 is unclear. The county does not appear to have had unusually high levels of carfentanil in its drug seizure data. (Carfentanil did cause significant overdose death increases in northern Ohio in 2019.) However, the Scioto death surge is related to fentanyl and its analogs, even if it’s not clear how. Of the deaths recorded so far, 86% involved fentanyl or fentanyl analogs, up from 70% in 2018.

Statewide, news is not good

In the big picture, the overdose death toll for 2019 shows no evidence that Ohio’s drug overdose catastrophe is receding. Some parts of Ohio have had overdose declines, but other parts have suffered increases and, on net, the bad news outweighs the good. Overdose death is on track to rise about 8% in 2019 to more than 4,000.

The nature of overdose death is changing somewhat. Fentanyl-cocaine mixtures have become common in central and northern Ohio, although not in Scioto County in southern Ohio. For the first time in decades, the overdose death rate for black Ohio residents now exceeds that for whites, a change driven to a large extent by the move of fentanyl and its analogs into the cocaine supply.

The chart that follows show counties that have overdose death rates lower than the state average in the preliminary 2019 data. The Ohio Department of Health mortality database currently produces age-adjusted death rates for only 40 of Ohio’s 88 counties in 2019. The counties for which rates are not calculated tend to be smaller counties with fewer deaths, making rate calculations harder. When the data is finalized this summer, county-level overdose death rates will be available for about 65 of Ohio’s 88 counties.

— Dennis Cauchon, President, Harm Reduction Ohio


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