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Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner issues public health alert amid 30 overdose deaths already in July

'I caution everyone to be on the lookout and take all necessary safeguards to protect their lives,' Dr. Thomas Gilson said.

CLEVELAND — As Northeast Ohio continues to battle the opioid epidemic, July 2022 has been a grim month for Cuyahoga County so far.

County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Gilson has issued a public health alert amid 30 overdose deaths already in the first 12 days of July. Fifteen of those deaths have come in the last four days alone, with the victims ranging in age from 30 to 78 and most of them being from Cleveland.

"When we see these things, I think it reinforces one of the sad things about the opioid crisis [which] is people are still dying at pretty alarming numbers," Gilson told 3News. "We had close to 700 people die of drug overdoses last year. That was up significantly from the previous three years, where we were at about 550."

According to data provided from the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office, there were 675 overdose deaths last year. In 2020, that number was 553, and in 2019, it was 582. 

According to projections based on data available through July 12, 2022, Cuyahoga County is on track to reach 771 overdose deaths this year. 

"It's disappointing to see that this is kind of our new normal, like, 'Okay, I just expect hundreds of people to die every year from drug overdoses,'" Dr. Gilson said. "That's not at all normal." 

The medical examiner's office will look into these deaths in the hopes of finding answers as to why the spike occurred. 

"Is the drug supply changing? Is the purity changing? Or are these just bumps in an already bad situation?" Dr. Gilson asked. "Don't know for sure yet, but that's what we're trying to address."

While there is no definitive answer yet as to the cause of the spike, Scott Osiecki, CEO of the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) Board of Cuyahoga County, said increases in overdoses can occur around holidays. 

"During holidays, such as three day weekends or other holidays, maybe when people are more out in the community or they're socializing, that they may be taking more of the illicit drugs that are out there," Osiecki said. 

Osiecki said it's clear that currently, the illicit drug supply appears to be laced with things like fentanyl. However, he emphasized that there are resources available for those struggling with substance abuse or addiction. 

Osiecki recommended calling the ADAMHS Board's 24-hour Addiction/Mental Health Crisis Hotline at 216-623-6888, or a national line at 988. He said from there, a behavioral health specialist can help connect people with services and answer questions. 

He also shared the importance of using fentanyl test strips for those who are going to use drugs regardless, and the impact of carrying and being able to administer Naloxone. 

"Naloxone can be administered by anyone, and there is no ill effects on someone to have that, but it is really a life saving drug and we want people to have that," Osiecki said. 

More resources are available on the ADAMHS Board's harm reduction page

Gilson released the following statement:

"With only just over one-third of the month behind us, overdose deaths are mounting quickly. Our concern for the public health and welfare compels us to issue these alerts and to provide as much information to the public as soon as possible. We do not have all the answers yet, but we will know more shortly. While we are continually on the lookout for new trends in street drugs, such as the carfentanil we saw in 2017, we have learned that the driving force behind overdose deaths in our community, fentanyl, needs no additional help. I caution everyone to be on the lookout and take all necessary safeguards to protect their lives."

At the current rate, Gilson warns, Cuyahoga County is on pace to see more than 700 overdose deaths by the end of the year, which could lead to more alerts. An investigation is underway to determine the exact drugs responsible for this recent spike.

Naloxone and fentanyl test strips are currently available throughout the area, with lists of walk-in clinics available at both testyourdrugscc.com or metrohealth.org. Those seeking help for addiction either for themselves or a loved one can also call Project DAWN at (216) 778-5677 or the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) Board of Cuyahoga County's 24-hour crisis hotline at (216) 623-6888.

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