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    Overdoses have climbed amid the pandemic in Columbus and across Ohio. What’s the solution?

    The deadly crisis has taken a toll on addiction services, hospitals and first-responders — stretching resources to treat addicts and putting pressure on leaders to find solutions to stem the tide.

    Eric Lagatta
    The Columbus Dispatch

    As her addiction began to take hold, there wasn’t much Norma Milton said she wouldn’t be willing to do in order to feed it.

    She stole from friends; she stole from family — and not just cash. Milton, of Columbus’ East Side, said she once stole her sister’s boyfriend’s gaming consoles and television sets to sell for drug money.

    Born in Kentucky, 49-year-old Milton said she began using drugs perhaps as young as 17. It began with pills — painkillers, such as Percocet — and gradually progressed to methamphetamine, to heroin and to crack cocaine, she said.

    When she moved in 2005 to Greater Columbus, her drug habit followed

    Even when her eldest son died in 2017, from an overdose at 26 years old — Milton said she was the one to find his body in the bathroom — she still wasn’t persuaded to get clean. It wasn’t until a year later, when Milton’s longtime boyfriend issued a simple ultimatum: seek treatment and get sober, or it’s over.

    So, she did.

    At a time when more and more Ohioans are dying from drug overdoses, Milton has survived. The detox program and counseling that Milton went through at Maryhaven, a behavioral health services provider that specializes in addiction recovery, put her on the road to recovery.

    “I was trying to escape,” Milton said of the reason for her past drug use. “But the drugs, they destroyed my life, they destroyed me.”

    ‘Meeting the demand has been a challenge’

    Milton’s life is far from the only one damaged by drugs.

    Largely due to the opioid epidemic and the growing presence of deadly fentanyl in street drugs, experts say overdoses have been on the rise for years in not only Greater Columbus, but across the state. And since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, overdoses have risen even more dramatically, data show.

    The number of Ohioans who have died from overdoses in a single year has steadily risen since at least 2007 and has increased every year since 2018, according to a Dispatch analysis of mortality data from the Ohio Department of Health.

    Between 2019 — the year before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when 4,028 people died from overdoses — and 2021, annual deaths from overdoses increased by 28.4% in the state, reaching a high of 5,174 deaths in 2021, the data show. However, figures for last year are preliminary and will likely be much higher when a final count is tallied.

    The deadly crisis has taken a toll not only on the addicts, but on addiction service agencies, hospitals and first-responders — stretching resources needed to treat addicts and putting pressure on community leaders to find solutions to stem the tide.

    Many of those leaders will come together at 6 p.m. Wednesday to discuss the problem and potential solutions during an event hosted by The Dispatch at the Fawcett Center on the Ohio State Campus Conference Theater, 2400 Olentangy River Road.

    The first in-person session in the Columbus Dispatch’s Columbus Conversation series, the free event will feature a panel conversation moderated by Dispatch Opinion Editor Amelia Robinson that will also stream on and on this newspaper’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.

    “The volume of individuals needing access to treatment and wanting recovery services has grown, and with the pandemic it has had an impact not on just the workforce, but a lot of frontline workers,” said Erika Clark Jones, the CEO of the Alcohol Drug and Mental Health Board of Franklin County (ADAMH), who will be among eight experts speaking on the panel.

    “Meeting the demand has been a challenge.”

    Experts: Isolated during pandemic, many people turned to drugs or relapsed

    Americans were forced into isolation in 2020 to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In a time filled with stress and uncertainty, experts say it’s not uncommon for people to turn to drugs and alcohol, or for those in recovery to relapse.

    “Economic downturn and social isolation are not things that make addiction better,” said Dr. Krisanna Deppen, who specializes in addiction medicine at OhioHealth. “A lot of our (patients) struggle with mental health, so with that social isolation … those issues can lead to using more or drinking more.”

    Meanwhile, fentanyl, which is easily mixed into other drugs such as cocaine and meth, flooded the market amid worldwide lockdowns that made it difficult to move other narcotics.

    Deppen, who serves as program director of the OhioHealth Grant Addiction Medicine Fellowship, said her team of four physicians and three fellows has struggled to treat the amount of people who have come to the hospital needing addiction treatment on top of other underlying health issues.

    However, a number of federal and state grants are allowing for addiction medicine services to expand across the OhioHealth system, Deppen said.

    First-responders also hit more barriers during the early days of the pandemic when it came to treating people who had overdoses.

    Since 2018, teams of paramedics, police and case managers who are part of RREACT (Rapid Response Emergency Addiction Crisis Team) have gone door to door providing follow-up services for opiate overdose patients. But when the pandemic began, it became challenging to reach those who were isolating, said Lt. Isaac Toliver with the Columbus Division of Fire, who supervises RREACT.

    The teams continued door-to-door outreach, Toliver said, but remained socially distanced outside. And RREACT also began setting up tables at public places in areas of the city where drug use was prevalent, linking individuals with treatment and recovery support.

    RREACT will be among the community organizations hosting information tables during the Dispatch’s community event, when Narcan, a drug used to stop opioid overdoses, will also be distributed.

    “Being first responders were still gonna go out there and do what we need to do,” Toliver said. “People still had to get groceries, people still had to get gas, so we would pop up there.”

    Naloxone, fentanyl test strips, among harm reduction methods that experts say reduce overdoses

    As illegal drugs flow through communities and overdoses rage, many experts advocate for a heightened focus on harm reduction methods to treat those who need help.

    Under the logic that if people are going to use drugs, it’s the responsibility of health care professionals to make sure they do it as safely as possible, many experts say that increasing the prevalence of resources such as Narcan and fentanyl test strips may reduce the number of fatal overdoses.

    “First you got to keep people alive, and then we can treat them for substance abuse and get them into recovery,” Clark Jones said.

    Many organizations in Greater Columbus have sought to make Narcan more widely available throughout the community. And licensed professionals have begun using fentanyl testing strips to identify fentanyl in other drugs, such as the cocaine or meth, with which it is often combined.

    But fentanyl test strips are classified as drug paraphernalia under Ohio law, making it illegal for an average citizen to possess them.

    That’s why leaders at Maryhaven are asking state legislators and Gov. Mike DeWine to approve and make law Senate Bill 296, which increases access to Narcan and decriminalizes the possession of fentanyl testing strips.

    “We don’t want to see another person pass away or overdose from something that we can help them with,” said Oyauma Garrison, president and CEO of Maryhaven.

    Maryhaven is also finalizing construction on a new inpatient facility at its Columbus location, which will provide men and women a stable place to stay for up to four months as they recover from addiction.

    The coed facility will have 28 beds for men and 28 for women, Garrison said, as well as amenities such as a rec room and laundry facility. The men’s section is slated to open Oct. 1, but Garrison said Maryhaven will need to raise another $350,000 before it can complete and open the women’s quarters.

    “We want to get them out of places and spaces that we would deem triggers for them,” Garrison said. “When we talk about helping people turn their lives around, this is it.”

    Milton, who continues to recover from her years of addiction, sees immense value in such a facility for those in need of a safe place to get clean.

    Though she said she’s been clean for more than four years, Milton said decades of drug abuse has led to both physical and mental deterioration. She said she’s diabetic along with other physical ailments, and struggles with extreme depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder after the trauma she endured with the loss of her son.

    And as she heals her body and mind, Milton said she has found solace in continuing group and individual counseling at Maryhaven, where she can connect with other addicts whose struggles resemble her own. She said she’ll go for as long as she feels she needs to.

    “It helps a lot having people around who are going through the same thing you are,” Milton said. “I don’t have a time limit on my recovery … I feel comfortable with the way I’m doing things right now.”

    Dispatch reporter Max Filby contributed to this article.

    Dispatch panel discussion

    What: Dispatch presents Columbus Conversations: “What is the state of the opioid crisis in our community?”

    When: 6 p.m. Wednesday

    Where: Ohio State University’s Fawcett Center Conference Theater, 2400 Olentangy River Road

    Who: Opinion and Community Engagement Editor Amelia Robinson will host the discussion, featuring a panel of health professionals and first responders.