Overdose deaths trend down in Northeast Ohio compared to other parts of state, nation

Published: Aug. 31, 2021 at 9:39 PM EDT

CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - The governor ordered flags at half staff on Aug. 31 to commemorate Ohio’s first-ever Overdose Awareness Day.

Local doctors are grateful that this year the state is joining in s day-long observance recognized by the national and international community.

Dr. Christina Delos Reeyes of University Hospitals said,I think it just increases awareness and the probability that people will get help in our state. It is a sad day. it is a day for remembering people we’ve lost but it’s also important to remember that help is available, and you can get better.”

According to the CDC, in 2020, 21,000 more Americans overdosed and died compared to the year before. (71,000 in 2019 vs. 92,000 in 2020). This is the largest single-year percentage increase on record since 1999.

Locally, statistics from the Ohio Hospital Association show the opioid overdose rate headed in the right direction in the Cleveland area, while it’s flat or rising in other parts of the state.

Doctors and recovering addicts in Northeast Ohio attribute the downward trend in overdoses to both an effort to reduce the stigma surrounding addiction here, as well as the acceptance and growth of one particular life-saving method.

Sara Szelagowski knows firsthand the life-saving power of the overdose-reversal nasal spray.

“It’s an energy struggle,” she said. “Someone is being pulled out of this world, and we’re pulling them back,” she described.

She’s used the drug formally called Naloxone on a friend in need before, but says it was not nearly as common to have on hand when she was using it nearly seven years ago.

“I had fallen out and had the cold water splashed on me and, you know, trying to wake me up,” Szelgowski said.

She said she was just lucky it worked.

It’s a life-saving medication that has been around for 40 years.

“What’s new is that people are now a little more open about talking about the fact that they may have a family member who may need a Narcan kit,” Delos Reeyes said.

Delos Reeyes said that openness has been critical in fighting the opioid crisis in the middle of a pandemic here in Northeast Ohio.

“It’s just been an overwhelming experience this last year and a half,” Delos Reeyes said.

19 News told you when Szelagowski first started leaving notes of positive messages and encouragement to those struggling with drug use around the city when she created her non-profit Project White Butterfly about two years ago.

Since then, her mission’s grown and begun to give out boxes of Narcan that would regularly cost someone $75 dollars.

“Someone has to be breathing to get to recovery. so we are keeping these people alive so that they have that chance to step into recovery,” Szelgowski.

She said after a particularly rough patch this March, Cuyahoga County was able to fund the purchase of 3,500 doses of Narcan in May.

Her organization’s given out more than 1,000 of them.

Szelgowski said, “for about two months, we worked our butts off to spread all this Narcan across the county.”

Data from the Cuyahoga County Medical examiner suggests efforts like those are helping save lives in our area. There has been a steady decrease in overdose deaths reported each year for the last four years in a row.

“It’s because of these efforts... it’s because people are out in the community... it’s because there is awareness right now,” Szelgowski.

In a Facebook post, the Lake County Sheriff said there’s also been a decrease in overdose deaths there recently too.

He too attributes a decrease partially to increased access to naloxone.

Delos Reeyes said the trouble is that these numbers lag and change often.

So as the pandemic drags on, and newly sober addicts remain more isolated, she hopes the numbers won’t spike too drastically again.

“We were making some progress pre-pandemic and now it just seems like we’re sliding back a little bit,” Delos Reeyes explained.

“I don’t know if I could have done it. I really don’t. I needed that connection and that time so for someone who has really dedicated themselves to get sober and stay sober. It’s incredible,” Szelgowski said.

University Hospitals says it has worked hard to contribute to decreasing opioid overdose numbers in Northeast Ohio. UH has implemented programs to address the issue from multiple angles and remove the stigma from Opioid Use Disorder (OUD).

It’s Narcan distribution program is called Project DAWN and began at UH in September of 2020 because of a grant from the Ohio Department of Health. As of July 2021, 231 kits have been distributed.

A spokesperson for UH says patients with OUD who are discharged have a 5% risk of dying within the next year and 2% within 30 days.

Additionally, Project ECHO is run by NEOMED, and supports caregivers and prescribers.

The program that began at UH in 2018, focuses on training and supporting caregivers who can prescribe buprenorphine/Suboxone for the treatment of OUD. A spokesperson for UH says this training is especially important now, since it’s recently been made easier for caregivers to prescribe buprenorphine.

As of April 2021, any physician, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant can now treat up to 30 patients on buprenorphine without having to take an extra 8-hour course.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services made these changes primarily based on a position statement written by Dr. Ryan Marino, an emergency medicine physician at UH. The statement has been endorsed by many relevant specialty organizations including the American College of Emergency Physicians, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the American Academy of Emergency Medicine, the American College of Medical Toxicology and the American Association of Clinical Toxicology.

THRIVE ED is another program at UH that started in May of 2020 to support patients with substance use disorder (SUD) who come to the emergency department seeking help.

As of July 31, 2021, UH has seen 512 ED patients successfully engage with a peer supporter out of a total of 692 patients referred. This is a 74% engagement rate overall, which UH says is impressive for this type of program.

Traditionally, emergency department treatments and the long-term management of substance use disorders have been largely separated, and patients with addiction often have to establish their own follow-up treatment after they are discharged.

With THRIVE ED, the patient is immediately connected to a “peer supporter” who helps them get the rehab care they need.

Lastly, the Comprehensive Pain Center at UH Parma Medical Center was launched in March of 2021.

The UH Comprehensive Pain Center builds on existing treatments for management of chronic pain (such as injections, spinal cord stimulators, and infusion therapy) with the addition of the UH Connor Integrative Health Network, offering chiropractic care, lifestyle and integrative health medical consults, massage therapy and guided meditation to complement its integrated approach to pain management.

The Center enhances access to comprehensive care for chronic pain so that patients can explore multiple avenues with the goals of reducing pain, improving functioning, and decreasing reliance on opioid medications.

Anyone seeking help for addiction can call University Hospitals Addiction Recovery Services at 216-844-5566.

There are of course so many ways to break down the overdose numbers and explain why they are the way they are in Northeast Ohio.

One other reason officials say opioid overdose deaths may be decreasing is because of an increase in access to methamphetamine. That drug is a stimulant but can be equally dangerous.

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