Opioid Epidemic Fills Ohio Morgues

Opioid Epidemic Fills Ohio Morgues

In 2005, when the abuse of painkillers was hidden but growing, the United States’ opioid epidemic was in its early stages. Now, the epidemic has hit the nation—particularly Ohio—so severely that the White House’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis released a report urging President Trump to declare the opioid epidemic a national health emergency.

The number of deaths related to opioid overdoses was nearly 15,000 Americans in 2005—500 from Ohio alone. In 2015, those numbers reached 33,000, with 2,700 from Ohio alone. Last year, 86 percent of overdose-related deaths involved the use of opioids.

The epidemic is particularly deadly in Montgomery County, Ohio, where it is predicted that more than 800 people will die from opioid overdoses, significantly surpassing last year’s record of 349 opioid-related deaths. Most nights, Montgomery County’s morgue is completely full, with an estimated 60 to 70 percent of deaths due to opioid overdoses.

“This is a mass fatality crisis.”

Coroner Dr. Kent Harshbarger, whose Montgomery County morgue services more than 30 counties, has already had to hire additional staff, extend the workday and remodel the morgue freezer just to deal with the increase in overdose deaths alone. Several times in 2015 and 2016, he had to purchase mobile morgue trucks, originally intended for use during mass-casualty events like a plane crash or terrorist attack—the opioid epidemic is not so different. “Staff is overwhelmed,” said Harshbarger.

According to Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer, when addicts think they’re purchasing heroin, they’re more likely getting one of its opiate cousins: fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin, and carfentanil, 5,000 times stronger than heroin. In 2016, 251 of 349 opioid-related deaths involved only these two opiates, with no heroin present.

During one of the deadliest drug epidemics in US history, officers and judges have begun to change their thinking: addiction is a disease that requires treatment and compassion. Instead of treating addicts like criminals, they are thinking more like medical professionals. As part of GROW, a new recovery initiative which stands for Get Recovery Options Working, the sheriff’s deputy, a social worker, a medic and a member of the clergy will visit a home where an overdose recently occurred. They discuss recovery options and if the individual is willing, they will drive him or her to treatment that day. “We just tell them, ‘we love and care for you, and we want to seek help for you,’” said Sheriff Plummer. “We’re having tremendous success with that.”

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