CINCINNATI -- As an especially potent and deadly opioid makes its way into the Tri-State, the leader of Hamilton County's heroin task force joined a growing number of officials in calling on Gov. John Kasich to declare a public health emergency and allocate more resources to southwest Ohio's battle against the heroin epidemic.
Newtown Police Chief Tom Synan's move came as Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco said her office has eight confirmed carfentanil deaths and five more suspected to involve the drug. Carfentanil, 10,000 times more potent than morphine, is used as an elephant tranquilizer. The Hamilton County Heroin Coalition announced in July that local heroin supplies were being mixed with carfentanil.
"We're bleeding profusely and we need a tourniquet," Synan said. "It's not going to take a Band-Aid -- and it's not going to take someone telling us to put pressure on the wound and it will all be better. We need action and we need it now."
Until last week, Sammarco's office couldn't test for the drug. Sammarco said Sen. Rob Portman's team helped her office get a sample of carfentanil from the Cleveland Zoo and Summit County Coroner's Office so they could identify it.
But she said those in law enforcement still need more help from the state of Ohio. The coroner's office is addressing a backlog of 275 cases in its lab, and Sammarco said she has no idea how long it might take to catch up.
It's important to test for the presence and quantity of carfentanil, Sammarco said, because of the danger it presents to first responders and the public.
"It's going to be dangerous for our first responders to handle, so it's very important to know what's there, what's out on the streets, because it endangers all of them," she said. "And it also makes our routine and our conventional treatment methods for overdoses not as effective."
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In some cases, first responders have had to use six doses of Narcan, an anti-opiate treatment, to revive carfentanil users.
Carfentanil is cut into heroin to intensify the high -- similar to the way fentanyl has crept into counties of Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky. In Hamilton County alone, fentanyl was a factor in the deaths of 344 people last year, according to the Hamilton County coroner's office.
Dr. Kimberly Cook, director of animal health and conservation at the Akron Zoo, told WEWS that carfentanil is an ultra-potent opioid, and it’s 100 times stronger than fentanyl.
"It's an incredibly dangerous drug," Cook said. "We're concerned that even a drop could get in an eye so we wear eye protection. We wear long sleeves. We wear gloves."
The risk of harm is not confined to those who intentionally use carfentanil, Cook said. It can also be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, meaning its deadly effects could reach family members of users, passersby who discover drug paraphernalia and even emergency responders.
“(Our officers will) be more vigilant about paraphernalia, where they are kneeling, where they are standing … if they do find paraphernalia, they’re going to have to be sure that that’s isolation,” Colerain Fire Emergency Medical Services Captain Will Mueller said in July.
Portman said in a news release that officials believe that much of the fentanyl and carfentanil in the U.S. is shipped from China and India.
“Fentanyl and, increasingly, carfentanil are causing an alarming increase in overdoses and deaths, both in Ohio and around the country," he said. "This week I intend to introduce new legislation that will help stop these dangerous drugs from being shipped through our borders to drug traffickers here in the United States.”
The legislation would require shipments from foreign counties though the U.S. postal system to provide electronic advance data on packages before they enter the U.S. in order to make it easier for authorities to catch the illegal packages, Portman said.
Meagan Petty, a former heroin user, said she was not surprised carfentanil had made such a devastating impact upon Cincinnati.
Hear more from Meagan in the video below:
“When someone is out there using, they fear the pain of withdrawal more than they fear death, and that’s the truth,” she said.
Addiction led Petty down a dark path -- she lost custody of her two daughters and spent time in prison -- before she began her recovery at First Step Home, a residential treatment center for women with addiction issues. She said Tuesday night that more resources like First Step are sorely needed in Cincinnati today, and other residents of the city should extend their empathy to victims of overdoses.
"These are not bad people," Petty said. "These are people that have a disease that really, really need help, and we need more help out here."