SOUTH POINT, Ohio - While the number of drug overdose deaths in Lawrence County is down dramatically so far this year, the number of autopsies required by County Coroner Ben Mack is up significantly.
Mack, an emergency room physician, said his office generally needs 13 to 15 autopsies at the Montgomery County Coroner's Office a year. However, he has authorized 12 during the first five months of 2019, Mack said during a Lawrence County Board of Commissioners meeting this week in South Point.
While there were 24 fatal drug overdoses in 2018, there have been only three so far this year, Mack said.
"I think people are getting scared of heroin and fentanyl," Mack said after the meeting. "They're switching to crystal meth."
Increased availability of Narcan, a drug that counteracts the effects of heroin, also is a likely factor, he said.
The success of drug treatment programs and the efforts of the office of Prosecuting Attorney Brigham Anderson also could be contributing to the declining overdose deaths, Mack said.
The number of overdoses handled by Lawrence County Emergency Medical Services ambulance crews is on the decline, said Mac Yates, an administrator with the ambulance district.
County ambulance crews had to deal with 46 overdoses in April 2017. A year later, the number was 28. This year it was 19, he said. While ambulance crews can administer Narcan to reverse the effects of heroin, it also is available over the counter, Yates said.
Yates and Lori Morris, another administrator at the ambulance district, agree with Mack that one of the reasons for declining overdoses is that drug abusers are being forced to get drug treatment or face criminal charges.
"Everyone is working together to get the low-level, nonviolent drug offenders into treatment," Anderson said. "We have two drug courts. All four judges are on board.
"Overdoses are way down," Anderson said.
There were more than 300 in 2017, but less than 30 the first five months of this year, he said.
The prosecutor's office received a state grant to establish a quick response team to address overdoses, Anderson said. A sheriff's deputy and a drug counselor meet with drug offenders within 48 hours of an overdose, he said.
The team gives abusers information on counseling, Anderson said. Those who are willing are put into drug treatment programs that day, he said. The program started in August 2017, but runs out of state funds at the end of the month, he said.
"We've applied for additional funds to continue the program," Anderson said. "I expect additional funding."
He feels the program is so effective he's transferred other funds in his office to keep it funded through the end of the year even if no additional state funds are forthcoming, he said.
Anderson also has a year-long diversion program to deal with low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. The people involved in the program get in-house drug treatment, job assessment and community service. Those participating also pay restitution and court costs, he said.
"We have over 50 in that program," Anderson said.
The diversion program has been effective since April 2016, he said.
The prosecutor's office is continuing to seek lengthy prison sentences for drug traffickers, Anderson said. The Lawrence County Drug and Major Crimes Task Force made more than 70 undercover drug buys last year, leading to criminal indictments, he said.