The final week of January 2016 was the only week last year when a person didn’t overdose and die in Lorain County.
A review of last year’s files from the Lorain County Coroner’s Office shows 132 people — mostly middle-aged white men and women — died of drug overdoses or from heart attacks or respiratory failure induced by drug use.
The dead ranged in age between 19 and 66, and the average age was just shy of 40.
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In some instances, couples died together in homes after using drugs. Another case involved the death of a 25-year-old woman, seven months pregnant, who overdosed and was dropped off at an emergency room. The unborn child also died.
There are those who are listed as having a history of substance abuse, depression and mental illness and others with no such designations. Some were veterans or
college-educated while others did not graduate high school.
Lorain County Coroner Dr. Stephen Evans said from 2000 to 2009, the coroner’s office averaged 12 1/2 overdose deaths a year. This means that in 2016, the county saw more than 10 times the usual amount from years past.
He said the county is on track to surpass 200 overdose deaths by the end of this year, which would be almost 20 times the amount from years past.
“It’s like the waves of the ocean,” Evans said.
Breakdown of 2016 deaths
Of last year’s 132 deaths, 108 people, or 81 percent, had a mix of drugs in their systems, with some combination of drugs like fentanyl, benzodiazepines, cocaine, heroin and opioid pain medications present that were blamed for their deaths.
Alcohol was listed among the substances that caused deaths in 18 cases, and marijuana was listed among 34. However, in each of these cases, people had high concentrations of substances like the above-mentioned drugs in addition to alcohol or marijuana in their systems.
According to the files, the majority of people who died — 87 percent, to be precise — were white men and women. Eighty were white men, 36 were white women, six were black men, one was a black woman, two were biracial and seven were Hispanic.
People who died were from areas throughout the county and several came from other places. The majority of people who died were from Elyria, followed by Lorain; Avon; Wellington; Sheffield Lake; LaGrange; Amherst; North Ridgeville; Avon Lake; Grafton; Oberlin; the townships of Columbia, Sheffield, Amherst, Henrietta, Eaton, Carlisle and LaGrange; Vermilion; Norwalk; Medina; Cleveland; East Liverpool; Crestline; and New York.
Sixty-seven people died in their own homes, 40 died at area hospitals where they had been transported from either homes or other locations, and the remaining 25 were found dead in homes of friends or relatives, parking lots, parks, motels or under bridges.
Fatal overdoses accounted for more than one-third (38 percent) of the 347 deaths the Coroner’s Office examined last year.
Throughout 2016 in Lorain County, between one and five people overdosed and died nearly every week of the year with the exception of that one week in January. March and November saw the most deaths, 16 each.
Epidemic stresses county coffers
Evans said the cases bankrupt the coroner’s office, which is the primary reason the office asked for a 0.16 levy in 2016, which voters rejected. His staff of five doctors cannot keep up.
A decade ago when the death toll stood about 12, Evans said, the cases involved mainly people from lower socio-economic classes who lived in urban areas of the county. Now it is everywhere, Evans said, and the explosion still involves the poor from urban areas but also swarms of white middle-class people living in the suburbs.
The office isn’t only strained by the number of deaths but also by the daunting task of figuring out which drugs were involved in the deaths. Many of the newer drug combinations cannot be identified by common drug screens.
And now, the coroner is starting to see the extremely deadly “gray death,” which is a combination of numerous, highly-potent fentanyl analogues, substances chemists invent in clandestine labs with different chemical structures than traditional fentanyl, which are often more deadly.
“Every time they come up with a new drug, we have to come up with a new test to detect it,” Evans said. “The last couple of years I’ve had to go to the county commissioners to tell them I’m out of money and need more funding for the tests and investigations we do. There’s no end in sight here — it just keeps going up and up and up.”
The volume of overdoses and deaths affects not only the coroner’s office but also emergency medical technicians, firefighters and police who are the first to respond to calls.
Worse than crack cocaine
Elyria police Capt. Chris Costantino said drug overdoses always have affected the community and devastated families. But in his 27 years with the Police Department, he’s never seen anything kill so many people as is the case with the opioid epidemic.
Police are sent to every overdose.
“Several years into my tenure, we ran into crack cocaine and I thought crack cocaine was bad, and it was,” Costantino said. “But it was nothing like this heroin epidemic and, in my opinion, not even close. We are responding to multiple overdoses daily and weekly. It’s taxing on the people who respond as well as the families of those suffering with an addiction.”
That’s not to say crack cocaine isn’t lethal, Evans said, it just isn’t as lethal as heroin or fentanyl. With crack cocaine, people tend to damage their vascular systems over time. They eventually die from drug-induced heart attacks, Evans said, versus dying from respiratory failure due to a heroin or fentanyl overdose.
“These fentanyl anologues being substituted for heroin right now are so toxic they’ll kill even the veteran user,” Evans said.
Costantino said the department often encounters frustrations from families of the dead or those who want to see more arrests made.
He cited the overdose death of Naomi Caulfield, and the recent indictments of Gregory Ralston and Anthony Baker on reckless homicide charges after the two men allegedly left Caulfield in a field to die, as an example of the aggressive stance the department will take against those tied to fatal overdose cases. A third man, Christopher Williams Jr., also was allegedly involved in leaving Caulfield to die, and his case is awaiting presentation to a county grand jury.
“We are doing everything we can with the resources we have and the laws that are in place to try to address this issue,” Costantino said. “It takes time to put together investigations that meet all the criteria of the law to arrest these people.”
However, Costantino said this is a problem the county cannot arrest its way out of since dealers immediately pop up to replace those who get arrested. It is a problem of supply and demand, Costantino said, and treatment for addicts is the only hope in bringing the number of deaths back down.
This is a lucrative business for drug traffickers, Costantino said, who aren’t concerned with who dies.
“I wish I could say I see it getting better but I don’t,” Costantino said.
One hope is for the state to start getting money back to local communities to be used for investigations and treatment, he said.
At the end of May, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine sued five pharmaceutical manufacturers, saying the drug manufacturers led doctors and patients to believe opioid pain medications were safe and non-addictive. The state is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars to address the state’s opioid crisis.
The city of Lorain also is moving forward with a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies for the damage done.
Evans isn’t confident such lawsuits, or the money that the state could realize, will stem the tide.
“The genie is already out of the bottle,” Evans said.
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