Over the last seven years, a total of 66 people have died in Athens County as a result of overdoses – many of those due to abuse of opioid drugs such as heroin.

Athens County’s not immune to the opioid addiction crisis sweeping much of America. But the death rate here in recent years (an average of about 10 per year) hasn’t been as bad as it has been in other poor Appalachian or rural counties in Ohio (many of them in the southern tier of rural counties along the Ohio River). Why is that? But more importantly, what is being done locally to prevent these deaths?

Dr. James Gaskell, health commissioner at the Athens City-County Health Department, said this week that in part, there’s been a coordinated, multi-agency effort to address opioid abuse, overdoses and trafficking in Athens County. This could be reducing the number of deaths we see locally, he speculated.

For anyone who doesn’t know this already, opioids are a class of drugs that include heroin, prescription pain pills (such as OxyContin and Vicodin) and synthetic drugs such as fentanyl (which is about 100 times more potent than morphine, and is sometimes used to lace heroin). Often, but not always, individuals get addicted to prescription pain pills that were prescribed legally, and when they can’t get those pills any longer, obtain a Naloxone kit, complete with the life-saving drug, and receive training in how to rescue an overdosing person with the drug.

To date, the Health Department has trained 179 people in usage of Naloxone, and given out 118 free Naloxone kit bags, with eight rescues reported to the Health Department so far, although Gaskell believes that that number is higher (and doesn’t include those handled by local law enforcement).

The City-County Health Department also started a needle-exchange program last year that trades dirty needles for clean needles (every Wednesday at the Department from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.). It’s a program that, while controversial, has been shown across the country to be effective in reducing the rates of certain diseases spread through needle-sharing. Gaskell said that while he’s not sure if that program has reduced overdose rates, he believes it means that heroin users are using smaller amounts at a time (due to the availability of needles), which means less of a chance of an overdose.

Why fewer overdose deaths in Athens County?

Dr. Joe Gay, Ph.D., formerly the director of Health Recovery Services in Athens, said Wednesday that in part, Athens County’s overdose death rate may be lower because to some extent it has been spared the brunt of the flood of synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanil that have caused huge increases in death rates in southern and southwestern Ohio.

Gay, a licensed independent chemical dependency counselor-clinical supervisor, added that the availability of treatment services in Athens County, such as HRS, could be reducing the overall death rate; he said he’s noticed that in one southeast Ohio county that has fewer addiction recovery services, the opioid death rate appears to be higher.

HRS CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER Ellen Martin said that the number of patients the agency is seeing for opioid addiction has increased significantly in the last five-plus years.

“The majority of the people that we’re seeing unfortunately at this time are being affected by the opioid epidemic, whether or not it’s themselves personally or family members, children and spouses,” she said. “It is affecting the majority of the people that we see.”

She added that HRS has the “full range” of treatment and recovery services, from medication-assisted treatment to behavioral health care, as well as two residential-care programs – one for women and one for adolescent males.

Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn said Tuesday that his office and the Athens County Sheriff’s Office have been working in tandem with other law-enforcement agencies to go after drug rings that are pushing large amounts of drugs into the county. Blackburn also explained, however, that most first-time drug offenders receive a sentence to go into a community diversion program rather than prison, which helps reduce recidivism and typically is a better way to help somebody on his or her way to recovery (by keeping the person in the community with access to recovery and treatment resources).

Blackburn also noted that his office is the only prosecutor’s office in Ohio to have an in-house Vivitrol treatment program for offenders and non-offenders alike; vivitrol is an antagonist medication that blocks opioids from attaching to opioid receptors in the brain, helping prevent people from relapsing following detox. The program is paired with aid in connecting people with local treatment and recovery service centers, as well as multiple meetings of a support group within the Prosecutor’s Office that includes individuals who are going through the Vivitrol treatment together.

Blackburn said that more than 50 people have completed the program since it was introduced in October 2015.

Meanwhile, Blackburn’s office also started a cognitive behavioral therapy treatment program with Hopewell Health Centers and HRS to provide behavioral therapy to those who are addicted to methamphetamines or cocaine.

On the Athens County Sheriff’s end, Smith said in a recent interview that his office has worked hard to ramp up enforcement on the road against drug trafficking. His officers, when they respond to a call for an overdose, have no interest in arresting a person who is overdosing, the sheriff said; rather, they’ll try to save the person with Naloxone or provide other support until emergency services arrive, and will also try to provide information on treatment/recovery services when they’re able.

“Our main intention is the preservation of life,” Smith said. “We go there intending to save a life and do what we can to make sure that they live another day.”

Smith said that his office sometimes will follow up with the person who overdosed or his or her family the next day, and provide information on what local agencies are available to help. But, his office doesn’t have the personnel to do that on a regular basis.

“It’s something I’m looking forward to changing, to start a program where we get some resources to do some follow-up,” Smith said.

Blackburn said that overall local efforts to address opioid trafficking and overdoses in Athens County have meant a decrease in those crimes, but at the same time an increase in the trafficking and use of methamphetamines, a point that Sheriff Smith corroborated.

Gay and Martin also said that community support in Athens County for levies for drug and alcohol addiction recovery services has meant that the county has more funding to address these issues.

Area groups formed to help educate

Educating people about opioids and overdoses is another key way that Athens County is addressing the crisis. To that end, two taskforces have been formed in recent years. The Athens City-County Health Department and the 317 Board for Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services formed an anti-opioid taskforce a few years ago that includes many area agencies, for example.

More recently, Ohio University’s College of Health Sciences and Professions formed a group called Athens HOPE – Halting Opioid Abuse through Prevention and Education – with OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital and the Health Department.

Group chair Rebecca Miller said Tuesday that the group has more than 20 organizations represented. The group’s main goal is to reduce opioid abuse through prevention and education efforts, while also coordinating greater collaboration between area agencies that work on attacking the epidemic. To that end, HOPE has put together a resource flier that’s gone out to Athens and Alexander school districts and been distributed to students, while also coordinating an effort to bring author Sam Quinones to campus last semester to talk about his best-selling book on the opioid epidemic. Miller said the group hopes to bring more speakers and educational events to campus this semester.

Meanwhile, Blackburn’s office is working with area schools to bring a speaker from his office in to educate students on opioids. The Prosecutor’s Office is also starting a parent support group meeting to provide an opportunity for parents and family members of opioid addicts to talk about their issues in a group setting (the first meeting is set for Feb. 21).

‘I wish you could do something’

Even though Athens County’s average overdose death rate between 2011 and 2016 isn’t as high as some of those in the surrounding area, these deaths are still happening here, and they hurt local families.

The NEWS obtained a 911 recording of a young man in northern Athens County who called 911 in 2016 to report that his mother wasn’t responding after falling asleep in his car the night before. He had put a blanket over her and let her sleep because she hadn’t been sleeping well recently; when he came to check on her the next morning, she was cold and unresponsive. He was panicking, but as he told the operator more about his mother’s condition, the operator told him it seemed like his mother was dead; EMS and the sheriff’s office would come, but it didn’t seem like there was anything they could do to save her.

“I wish you could do something,” he told the operator, sobbing.

The woman’s cause of death was listed by the Athens County Coroner as “acute respiratory failure/multiple overdose.”

While not speaking about that incident in particular, Health Department Commissioner Gaskell said that many of the overdose deaths in Athens County are a result of multiple drugs being used, typically alcohol and an opioid such as heroin.

Without the partnership of multiple agencies and further availability of treatment and recovery services, these deaths will continue.