Ohio paramedics have faced 851 drug overdoses this year

The record opioid epidemic sees 11 people overdose each day

By Nick Glunt
Akron Beacon Journal

AKRON, Ohio — Authorities and interest groups are scrambling to combat the ongoing spike in drug overdoses that’s been plaguing Summit County for three weeks.

As of July 26, authorities have logged 851 emergency room visits for drug overdoses in the county this year, according to a Summit County Public Health report.

From July 5 to 26 in Akron alone, paramedics responded to at least 247 of those overdoses — including 21 deaths. There has been an average of 11 overdoses in Akron every day for the past three weeks, compared to two or fewer per day in the months before that.

Though the city is getting hit the hardest, all parts of the county are struggling. Authorities blame an influx of an elephant tranquilizer called cartfentanil, which is more potent than the heroin-trumping drug fentanyl.

The massive spike in overdoses has prompted Nicole Walmsley, 31, to petition Akron’s police to adopt a program to get addicts help and treatment instead of locking them in jail.

“I’m trying to take the crime out of addiction,” she said.

Walmsley, an addict who has been in recovery for three years, works in Lodi as Ohio’s liaison for the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative. PAARI, as the program is known, encourages addicts to surrender their drugs at police departments in exchange for placement in treatment programs across the country. As long as the person has no warrants for their arrest and no history of violent or sexual crime, they’re provided the help they need.

The program, which runs on donations and volunteers, has been adopted by 10 police departments across the state, including Lodi in Medina County. A similar program was adopted by Stow this week.

Ever since the spike in overdoses started in Akron, Walmsley said she’s seen an influx of Akronites asking for help.

“The past two weeks, I’ve been slammed with intakes from Akron who are coming clear from Akron to ask for treatment,” she said. “I shouldn’t be placing Akron residents into treatment from a Medina County police department. We’re still placing them — I won’t turn anyone away — but I shouldn’t have to do it from Lodi.”

Christine Curry, the city’s spokeswoman, said Walmsley first met with city and county officials on July 15. The city has not yet reached a decision on whether to adopt the program.

“We received PAARI’s thoughts and ideas and we are reviewing them,” Curry said. “The city is committed to addressing this public health crisis through partnerships with our county and state agencies, and we remain open to innovative ideas.”

But Walmsley is frustrated that two weeks have passed without a decision.

“People are dying,” she said. “All we’re asking for is a space to work out of and support from police and the city.”

Elsewhere in Summit County, the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Board has been working to combat the spike in overdoses.

“This has consumed our board and our staff,” said Executive Director Jerry Craig. “We’re not taking this lightly.”

Craig said the primary focuses are education and coordinating agencies to figure out barriers addicts face in getting treatment.

“Often times, the best way to address this is to prevent people from getting involved in the first place,” he said. “And naturally, there’s this stigma and it’s not gone away. Our opinions are strong about people who are [intravenous] drug users and how they got there.”

He said the truth is that many of today’s drug users got their start using prescription painkillers that were legitimately prescribed by doctors.

“So many of these happen innocently,” he said. “So we’re trying to talk about alternatives for people. If they’re getting medical care, we encourage them to talk about alternatives to opiates, getting smaller supplies of drugs and disposing of the drugs properly.”

For addicts, he said it’s important to remember there’s hope.

“There are people who recover,” he said. “There are stories of hope.”

Copyright the Akron Beacon Journal

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