| The Columbus Dispatch
Drug overdoses killed more Ohioans in May than in any month in at least 14 years, a potential side effect of the coronavirus pandemic that leaders fear could flare up again before things get back to normal.
At least 532 Ohioans died of an overdose in May, preliminary statistics from the Ohio Department of Health’s mortality database shows. By comparison, 381 Ohioans died of an unintentional drug overdose in April, according to state data.
The May data is still incomplete; county coroners have six months to investigate, meaning overdose deaths could still climb for that month, a state health department spokeswoman said.
The startling trend is one that many saw coming, as overdoses often skyrocket in times of despair and economic uncertainty, said Blyth Barnow, harm reduction manager for Faith in Public Life Ohio, which is part of a national network of faith leaders that advocates for legislative reform regarding drug abuse and other issues.
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“When you don’t have certainty in the middle of something like this, it creates a lot of anxiety and fear,” Barnow said. “We know anxiety and fear and shame fuel drug use.”
The group is lobbying for a series of changes to Ohio law to help stem the increases in overdose deaths across the state.
First, Barnow said the state should adjust its Good Samaritan law to protect people who report overdoses from facing drug paraphernalia charges. Those who report an overdose are already granted immunity at least two times when helping someone seek medical attention.
The state, Barnow said, should also have a standing order for overdose-reversing naloxone and increase funding for needle exchanges and for Medicaid, which is the largest payer of treatment for people with substance abuse disorders.
Gov. Mike DeWine said his administration plans to announce a strategy to get money into communities struggling with the opioid epidemic. Incidents of drug abuse and mental health issues have increased during the pandemic, causing them to become a reoccurring topic in the governor’s bi-weekly COVID-19 briefings
“Many times those are connected,” DeWine said of mental health and drug abuse. “We know that there’s been a lot of downsides to this COVID besides the COVID. One of the downsides is an increase in mental health (issues).”
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Most recently, the Ohio House and state Senate passed House Bill 341, which expands access to naloxone, said Alisha Nelson, director of RecoveryOhio, a statewide initiative focused on rehabilitation and addiction prevention.
The bill, which is set to take effect Dec. 16, allows pharmacists to dispense naloxone to anyone and permits any person to acquire naloxone and administer it to someone who appears to be experiencing an overdose, according to an analysis from the state Legislative Service Commission. The person administering the drug will not be liable for the overdose of the person they are assisting.
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Nelson declined to elaborate on plans DeWine said he’d announce in the coming days to better combat the opioid crisis. RecoveryOhio is constantly looking to add “new tools to the tool box” in the fight against overdoses, she said.
Although the pandemic has accelerated the opioid crisis, Nelson said there may be a “silver lining.” When the pandemic comes to an end, the state will have invested more in opioid recovery efforts and will have more ways to assist those struggling with addiction, she said.
But, Nelson still worries the opioid crisis may worsen again before it improves as the pandemic rages on.
“I’m always worried and I want to make sure we do everything we can to help the individuals who are suffering from substance abuse disorder,” Nelson said. “It’s really just confirmed to me that it’s not time to take our foot off the gas.”