CINCINNATI -- A "spike" of nine suspected overdose deaths in Cincinnati over the weekend, including four in 24 hours, prompted Hamilton County officials to issue an alert for heroin users and an informal request for additional resources for treatment Monday.
There have been 94 suspected overdose deaths in Hamilton County so far this year, compared to 49 in the same period last year, according to Hamilton County Coroner Lakshmi Sammarco.
"That's an alarming number," she said.
Officials had previously issued a warning last summer when they attributed a spike of hundreds of overdoses to heroin being mixed with stronger synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer. Now officials are seeing new mixes of drugs they can't even identify at their lab, as well as other drugs like cocaine and ketamine, Sammarco said.
"It's a challenge every week for us, because we encounter unknown compounds and we have to figure out what they are, and what it's doing to our community," Sammarco said.
Between November and January, the number of emergency department visits due to overdose in Hamilton County remained about flat at just under 200 each month following that summer spike, according to numbers released by the county Public Health Department. However, the number in February was up to 258 so far.
Newtown Police Chief Tom Synan, who leads Hamilton County's heroin task force, said officials weren't issuing a formal warning or declaring a formal emergency Monday, but they wanted to get the information out about the overdoses in case it could save a life.
Just as officials can't immediately all the compounds responsible for the overdoses, heroin users can't be sure exactly what they're shooting up, officials warned.
"It's just an unbelievably sad story," said Cincinnati Police Capt. Jim Gramke. "And it's a story that's been going on all too long in our county and our city for the last couple of years. Heroin is just ... it just ruins lives."
Those addicted to heroin aren't the only ones affected by the heroin problem. One overdose death Sunday night orphaned three children, Sammarco said.
Hamilton County Job and Family Services currently has more than 100 "opiate orphans" looking for homes, according to Sammarco. She called them the "unheard victims" of heroin.
Help is available
Officials urged family members of heroin users to get Narcan, the drug that can counteract the effects of an overdose. It is available without a prescription in Hamilton County. Health Commissioner Tim Ingram recommended keeping Narcan on hand, and not just storing it away in a medicine cabinet.
Kevin Richardson of the Addiction Services Council urged anyone seeking help to call 513-281-7880 (or 859-415-9280 in Northern Kentucky) any time for help finding treatment. The website injecthope.com also has resources and information available.
"Nothing happens -- nothing -- without that first phone call," Richardson said.
Don't share injection equipment
Ingram warned that anyone using heroin should not share injection equipment. Sharing has led to Hepatitis C becoming the most common reportable disease in Hamilton County, and it has shifted to a younger population, he said.
More resources needed to expand programs
Denise Driehaus, a Hamilton County commissioner and chair of the county Heroin Coalition, said that local programs to help recovering addicts have been successful, but officials need more resources to expand them.
Driehaus pointed to the Addiction Services Council as one successful example. She said another success is the recovery pod at the Hamilton County Justice Center, which separates a select number of female inmates from the rest of the jail population and provides them with treatment services.
"If they can get the support services they need, both in the jail and out, they don't come back in," Driehaus said.
Officials aim to expand the program to include male inmates recovering from addiction.
"They're jealous and they're waiting," Driehaus said.
Officials said they would look for help from state officials to help expand their programs. They also need federal recognition that heroin addiction is a medical, rather than criminal, issue, according to Synan.
"The only way we're going to fix this is if we change our approach," he said.