Overdose statistics released Monday show this year’s third-quarter months were the deadliest yet.
A report distributed by Coroner Steven Seele showed a tally of 11 drug overdose deaths, eight of which involved opiate abuse, during the months of July, August and September.
That brings the 2018 total in Howard County to 26 overdose deaths. Through the first three quarters of 2017, there were 38 cases of fatal overdose; the year ended with a total of 44 overdose deaths.
“Although the overdoses increased for the third quarter, we are still maintaining an overall downward trend in Howard County for 2018,” remarked Seele.
Of the 11 confirmed third-quarter overdose deaths, eight were the result of opiate abuse, according to Seele. Three of those deaths involved heroin and six involved Fentanyl.
Methamphetamine was involved in three of the cases, while six involved non-opiate multi-substance abuse including benzodiazepines (medication used primarily to treat anxiety) and other non-scheduled prescription medication. Alcohol was a factor in one of the cases, the coroner noted.
Despite the overall 2018 trend, this year’s third quarter is a step back for Howard County after a promising first half.
After experiencing the deadliest year in county history for overdose deaths – the 44 in 2017 surpassed the previous high of 34 in 2015 – Howard County showed a significant downturn from January through June, with 15 overdose deaths.
But within the 2018 figures have been increases – from just five overdose deaths during the year’s first quarter to 10 in the second quarter, and 11 more in the third quarter.
And with it has come a renewal of opiate-related fatalities, squashing the optimism that existed after the year’s first three months returned no such deaths.
Most notable, perhaps, in the third-quarter report is the prominence of Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid approved to treat severe pain, even advanced cancer pain. But the drug has become better known for its deadly role in spiking drugs like heroin.
In fact, Fentanyl, which is often manufactured illicitly, is the “main driver of recent increases in synthetic opioid deaths,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fentanyl can be, noted the CDC, even 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
It all comes as federal and local law enforcement have mounted unprecedented responses to drug dealing and abuse.
In late July, the Howard County prosecutor’s office announced an ongoing campaign, Operation Law and Order Part 2, that has led to more than 50 arrests and the seizure of substantial amounts of drug.
By July 31, the operation’s arrests had netted nearly 1,000 grams of methamphetamine, 5,000 grams of marijuana, 20 grams of heroin and more than 200 syringes, according to Kokomo Police Department Capt. Shane Melton. For reference, one pound is equal to 448 grams.
Investigators also recovered 300 pills and digital scales, paraphernalia and several guns.
“Like the federal investigation (phase one), this operation involved primarily methamphetamine dealers. Methamphetamine use is an ongoing problem in the community as many addicts try to avoid the withdrawals from heroin by using methamphetamine,” said Howard County Prosecutor Mark McCann.
The announcement of those arrests came roughly three months after a mix of local officials and federal law enforcement announced in a press conference the results of Operation Law and Order’s first phase.
A citizen tip ultimately set into motion a drug investigation that culminated in around 130 local and federal law enforcement officers conducting multiple raids in the early morning hours of May 1, dismantling an alleged drug and firearms ring with ties to criminal activity in Georgia.
Starting at 6:05 a.m. May 1, federal agents from multiple agencies, alongside local law enforcement, executed warrants at 13 locations across Kokomo and Macon, Georgia.
Officers ultimately seized more than 17 pounds of meth, two pounds of cocaine, two ounces of heroin, 122 grams of Fentanyl, six ounces of marijuana, two money counters, 12 vehicles, $37,000 in drug money and 24 firearms – including a sniper rifle and two assault rifles.
More coroner data
During this year’s third quarter, the Howard County Health Department – Vital Records Division recorded 223 deaths. Forty-seven of those deaths were investigated by the coroner’s office, and 24 were determined to be of natural causes.
Additionally, there was one homicide, four suicides and 18 accidental deaths.
The homicide, said Seele, involved 26-year-old Kenneth Steven Nix Jr., who was located unconscious and unresponsive by officers on the night of Aug. 17. Nix was pronounced dead by medical personnel a short time later.
An investigation revealed Nix was involved in an altercation with a family member, during which he sustained a stab wound to the chest. Charges have not been filed related to the incident.
Of the 47 cases investigated by the coroner’s office, there were 29 autopsies conducted, with 23 toxicology studies performed, for a cost of $48,063.