For the last couple of years, Steve Lockyear has told anyone who will listen that heroin will continue to plague the Evansville area.
And it's likely to get worse before it gets better, he says now, even as he -- as the Vanderburgh County coroner -- and other local officials and advocates push for awareness and solutions.
Lockeyar recently told the Courier & Press his office handled 29 heroin or Fentnyl deaths during 2016, more than four times the total in 2015 -- and one more than previously thought. Overdose victims ranged in age from 20 to 60, and with an average age of 38, showing that while the national narrative is that heroin hits high school and college-age people the hardest, anyone is at risk of developing an addiction that usually starts with a pain pill.
"It's unbelievable," Lockyear said. "It has not appeared to slow down at all. I regretfully am concerned that we're going to exceed that number this year."
In fact, there were likely six fatal heroin or Fentanyl overdoses in Vanderburgh County through the first two months of 2017, according to Lockyear. Three of those are confirmed overdoses while the other three are still awaiting toxicology reports, he said.
In 2015, the coroner's office worked six fatal heroin overdoses the entire year -- which caused alarm then -- as well as one death blamed on someone chewing on Fentanyl patches. Now, the two drugs are mixed together so often in Evansville that Lockyear counts the overdoses together. The office started seeing the combined overdoses last year. Also an opioid drug, Fentanyl is often added to heroin to make the drug more potent.
While the myriad of problems heroin brings with it makes the drug a "community problem," Lockyear commended leaders and others for stepping up and talking about the issues relatively quickly. Before the middle part of this decade, heroin was scarcely seen in Evansville, even as the drug started to surge in other parts of the Midwest. Prescription pill abuse, though, has long been a problem in Southwestern Indiana. Often, opioid addicts turn to heroin when the street drug becomes cheaper and more available in their communities.
"For the most part, the community seems to be aware of (the heroin problem), and is reacting in a way in which they're going to try to keep this from getting worse, but it's tough," Lockyear said. "It's a sign of the opiate addiction and the craving that this country has. It's here."
Speaking at forum she organized Tuesday night about opioid abuse and other addictions, Katy Adams said that to stem the heroin problem, all sectors of the community need to come together. Adams, the director of addiction services at Stepping Stone, said it is important to have services available for addicts so their basic needs are met. That includes housing, employment, family services, treatment and other options.
"It's a complex problem, if people don't have all their needs met, they're going to keep using. So it's going to take all us to (find solutions)," she said.
During the event, Adams invited both Vanderburgh County Sheriff Dave Wedding and Prosecutor Nick Hermann to address the crowd. In his remarks, Hermann agreed that despite the spike in 2016, the number of deaths will likely remain high.
"We're not nearly as affected as the rest of the state when you look at numbers, particularly in the northern part of the state (or over near Cincinnati) in heroin overdoses," he said. "... It is going up in our community, and it will continue to go up."