KOKOMO - Statistics released by Howard County Coroner Steven Seele show that overdose deaths in 2017, specifically heroin-related, are on pace to far exceed last year's local totals. 

Seele, who released first-quarter coroner statistics late Sunday, said that through March 31 there were 14 drug overdose deaths in Howard County. Of the overdose deaths, 11 were opiate-related, nine of which involved heroin.

Officials who hoped to see progress in 2017 have so far encountered nothing but the stark realization that drugs, specifically heroin, continue to permeate Howard County despite a multitude of efforts to counteract its drug and addiction epidemic. 

In Sunday's report, Seele also noted that fentanyl was detected in five of the overdose-death cases. 

“I think maybe the fact that we have seen an increase in fentanyl in the area is about the only thing that I can see that’s different that has attributed to the [overdose death] increase in the first quarter,” said Seele.

“I think that at least for the first quarter it’s because we are seeing the mixture coming on, the fentanyl (mixed with heroin),” he continued later. “The fentanyl is probably the big player there that we’re seeing.”

Some local officials expressed optimism at the end of last year, as the county's overdose death figure dropped from 34 confirmed drug overdose deaths in 2015 to 24 in 2016. 

In 2012, there were 23 confirmed overdose deaths in the county, compared to 26 deaths in 2013 and 20 in 2014.

In an interview, Seele credited the spike in 2015 overdose deaths to a concerted effort to crack down on pill mills and prescription drug abuse in Howard County. This created an environment where addicts had to look elsewhere for a high, meaning inexperienced drug users began substituting heroin for prescription medication.

Seele acknowledged, however, that he was “baffled” when he first learned of the discrepancy between 2015 and 2016 overdose deaths.

That surprise wasn't uncommon, considering the number of dispatched calls to potential overdose scenes nearly doubled from 2015 to 2016, according to figures provided by Howard County 911 communications director Gary Bates.

In 2015, there were 231 “overdose in progress” calls for service, a total that nearly doubled in 2016.

And through the first quarter on this year, there were 125 “overdose in progress” calls, putting the county on pace for 500 such calls in 2017.

While Bates cautioned that some calls may be duplicate counts - Community Howard Regional Health or St. Vincent Kokomo ambulances sometimes respond with volunteer agencies - and that some overdose designations are reversed once a patient gets to the hospital, a strong concern remains.

One explanation given by local health professionals for the uptick in overdoses but decline in overdose deaths from 2015 to 2016 was naloxone, the generic form of the brand name Narcan.

The use of Narcan is described by the U.S. National Library of Medicine as a way “to reverse the life-threatening effects of opiate [narcotic] overdose. … It works by blocking the effects of opiates to relieve dangerous symptoms caused by high levels of opiates in the blood.”

In 2015, there were only two “overdose Narcan” calls for service, which is defined as an overdose call in which police or fire agencies respond and administer Narcan before medics arrive, according to Howard County 911 Communications Director Gary Bates.

There were nine such calls last year.

And it’s possible that Narcan has saved Howard County’s overdose figures from spiraling even more out of control in the first three months of this year.

Through the first quarter, there were four “overdose Narcan” calls and an indeterminate amount of Narcan deployments elsewhere in the county, as the medication becomes more easily accessible.

But in light of his first report, Seele called on the local community to do more to curb its drug epidemic.

“I still think that programs like Narcan and these types of things are helping. I think it still gives some of these people an opportunity to turn their lives around,” he said. “But we’ve got to have more; we’ve got to have long-term treatment programs, inpatient and outpatient in order to bring this epidemic under control.

“And that’s not just Howard County, I want to make that clear. This is nationwide. We’ve got a problem here.”

Seele, in his first year as Howard County coroner, said he plans to release death statistics on a quarterly basis to increase transparency in the coroner's office.

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