The drug epidemic claimed more lives in Ashtabula County in 2020 than it did in 2019.

There were 30 confirmed overdose deaths in Ashtabula County in 2020, and nine probable overdose deaths, compared to 22 fatal overdoses in 2019, said Tom Despenes, an investigator with the Ashtabula County Coroner’s Office.

The vast majority of those deaths were caused by fentanyl, either by itself or mixed with other compounds, Despenes said. A few of the deaths were caused by methamphetamine overdoses, he said.

Overdose fatalities have not been this high since 2017, Despenes said.

The number of fatal overdoses does not include people who overdosed in the county and were taken to a hospital outside the area then died, Despenes said.

Ashtabula Police Chief Robert Stell said that the city averaged one or two fatal overdoses per month in 2020.

“We had a while there, where we’re seeing an uptick, late summer into fall and just as we were entering into winter, it seemed like we were having more than usual,” Stell said. “Now, it’s kind of leveled off in the last eight weeks or so.”

Drug seizures in the city went up throughout 2020, Stell said.

Stell encouraged people struggling with addiction to reach out and ask for help.

“Don’t be afraid to reach out to people in the medical field, or even in law enforcement,” he said.

Stell said police aren’t just looking to put people in jail.

“If somebody comes to me and says ‘I need help, I’m a heroin addict,’ I’m going to do everything I can, trying to find them help,” Stell said.

If people aren’t comfortable reaching out to police, there are other resources out there, Stell said.

The Crime Enforcement Agency of Ashtabula County, or CEAAC, has investigated a total of 40 fatal overdoses since it was formed in July 2019, according to information provided by CEAAC Commander Greg Leonhard.

Conneaut Police Chief Michael Colby said that it is sad to see the increase in deaths.

“These things seemed to have diminished a little bit, but then they popped back up,” he said.

People who have overdosed have been requiring more and more naloxone, a drug that reverses opiate overdoses, to be brought back, Colby said.

“There is treatment out there, and we would do anything we can to help somebody out, they just have to have the want to get off of it,” he said.

Miriam Walton, executive director of the Ashtabula County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board, said that the increase in overdoses could be due to a number of factors.

One of those factors is more potent synthetic drugs like fentanyl.

“They are much more deadly than the prescription drugs,” Walton said.

Another factor is the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were dealing with a change in our normal way of operating, our normal way of linking people with treatment,” Walton said. People had concerns about having access to treatment, uncertainty about living situations

“I think there are some COVID factors in there,” Walton said.

The county has a quick response team to help get people who overdosed into treatment, Walton said. The team wasn’t able to be out in the community for a little while, Walton said. The team is back working again now, she said.

“The treatment providers, the law enforcement folks who are involved in [the] quick response team, all of the services and places people can get the help that they need, have continued to be committed to getting the work done and getting back out to outreach for those individuals, because we know that this is extremely important,” Walton said.

“People can die from this,” Walton said. “This is not what anybody wants. We want people to get into treatment, and to be able to go into recovery and have good and happy lives. And that is possible for everyone who suffers from a substance use disorder.”

The MHRS is trying to reduce the stigma of going into treatment for a drug problem.

“It’s a disease, and if we treat it, and we treat it well, and we treat it long enough, people do recover,” Walton said. “They go into recovery, they go back to work. They have productive lives.”

Walton encouraged people who are struggling with addiction to visit the MHRS board’s website, ashtabulamhrs.org, go to the board’s Facebook page, or call the board’s offices, at 440-992-3121.

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