CINCINNATI -- Authorities suspect the Cincinnati area has been treated as a "test tube" by heroin dealers for use of a powerful animal tranquilizer, a county coroner said on Tuesday.
Tests have confirmed carfentanil in the bodies of eight recent overdose casualties, Hamilton County's Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco said, and more cases are suspected. The drug, used to sedate elephants, can be thousands of times stronger than morphine.
Sammarco said the sudden surge in overdose cases raised concerns that dealers wanted to see what would happen in a community when they mixed carfentanil with heroin or sold it outright.
"The very intense and focused spike brought up a lot of fears .... that our community was being used as a test tube," she said. "What are they learning from it? Are they looking to see how many people it's going to kill or how quickly our first responders can respond? And how many customers is that going to generate for them?"
Authorities have said nearly 300 overdoses have been reported in the Cincinnati area since Aug. 19, with 174 reported in a six-day period. Communities in West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana also saw overdose spikes in recent weeks.
Carfentanil has been blamed in other overdose surges, such as in Akron this summer. Cincinnati area authorities warned publicly in July that carfentanil was beginning to show up locally.
Sammarco said the office of Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman reached out to the Cleveland Zoo and the Summit County coroner's office to help her obtain carfentanil samples for testing. She said more overdose cases since July are being reviewed for carfentanil.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials have said they believe much of the carfentanil is being shipped from China to Mexico, where traffickers are mixing it with heroin and other drugs such as the painkiller fentanyl.
Cincinnati firefighters said they sometimes had to use multiple doses of the overdose-reversal drug naloxone to save users during the spike.
Newtown police Chief Tom Synan, who heads the Hamilton County Drug Coalition task force, said Tuesday he wants Ohio to declare an emergency and free up more resources to help local authorities cope.
"We're bleeding profusely, and we need a tourniquet," Synan said.
A spokeswoman for Republican Gov. John Kasich, Emmalee Kalmbach, said the state is continuing to work with Cincinnati area officials to strengthen prevention, treatment and other resources.
"Making progress in our fight against drug abuse requires a determined, community-based commitment and a shared purpose that brings all of us together to find and implement the right solutions," Kalmbach said.
The state last week expedited a shipment of naloxone to Cincinnati to rebuild supplies as the spike slowed.