Overdose deaths are accelerating in the nation, and Ohio is ahead of the curve.
Not only did the state rank 2nd in the number of such deaths in 2016 behind only West Virginia, the deadly trend is continuing and possibly accelerating in 2017, early reports show.
"It's horrifying," said Nan Franks, CEO of Addiction Services Council, a nonprofit that is at the forefront of fighting the opioid epidemic in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
A National Center for Health Statistics report showing just provisional overdose death counts from May 2016 to May this year shows Ohio had a 41 percent rise in its deaths, and Kentucky had nearly a 20 percent increase in its overdose deaths.
The jump in both states was steeper than the 17 percent rise in overdose fatalities nationally. The bleak new report adds that the provisional data in it is “likely underreported" and incomplete.
News of Ohio's rising toll comes as candidates in the 2018 governor's race are focusing on the problem. Both Attorney General Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor are making how they would tackle the opioid crisis a key part of their campaigns.
The Cincinnati area, including Northern Kentucky, has been fighting the opioid epidemic with cooperation from multiple levels of health, government, nonprofit social services and law enforcement, Franks said. But she knows more needs to be done.
"We will need to commit more resources, more funding, to continue to make progress," she said.
Eric Wandersleben, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, said it will take "comprehensive and persistent community response" to be overcome.
Progress is not obvious because of the rising number of overdose deaths, Franks said, but she noted a significant increase in treatment access in the area. She included Northern Kentucky and Hamilton County as areas adding intensive outpatient services, and noted that there's more treatment available outside the county, such as the Northland Treatment Center in Clermont County.
Wandersleben said that the use of medication-assisted treatment, or "MAT," the best evidence-based treatment for heroin or other opioid addiction, is growing in Ohio. "In April, about 50,000 people in Ohio were receiving MAT. As of this month, it has increased to 54,000," he said.
There's also increasing access to the overdose antidote naloxone, known also by its brand name, Narcan.
"We can count fatalities, but we can't count the number of lives that have been saved by naloxone ... or by the increase in treatment," she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had estimated that 64,000 people died in 2016 from drug overdoses, and the final count came to 63,600. That compares with the 2015 count of 52,404. Most, but not all, were opioid-related overdose deaths.
Fentanyl is what's mostly spurring the additional deaths, officials said. The synthetic opiate has been cut into the heroin supply and, in some cases, replaced heroin that's sold on the streets.
Fentanyl is more deadly because it's about 50 percent stronger than heroin and is being altered to create new types of fentanyl, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration says. The new forms of the drug aren't always known to law enforcement. In addition, the strength of the new types can fluctuate, which can make them deadlier.
The drug is largely coming from China, sent to Mexico and moved into the United States, according to the DEA. It's also been moved around by the U.S. Postal Service with sales expedited over the dark web.
The national report shows that the rate of drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opiates other than methadone doubled in one year, from 3.1 per 100,000 in 2015 to 6.2 in 2016.
"We continue to be horrified by the tragedy that this epidemic has brought to our community," Franks said. But she added, "We cannot let ourselves be disheartened. We have to stay committed to eradicating this epidemic."