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The Fentanyl Threat: Overdose deaths on the rise in Michiana

Published: May. 9, 2022 at 6:25 PM EDT
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WNDU) - For the first time ever, St. Joseph County is making a point to participate in Fentanyl Awareness Day. Just last year, they recorded their highest number of overdose deaths ever, with at least 75 percent due to fentanyl.

This deadly drug is not just plaguing Michiana, but the entire country. The CDC recently announced more than 100,000 drug overdose deaths in the US over the past year, the most ever recorded. Again, a huge contributor to that number – fentanyl.

Drug overdose numbers are on the rise in Michiana. Experts blame fentanyl.

“Do we have a problem with fentanyl?” asks Christine Karsten.

“We definitely have a problem with fentanyl in Michiana,” responds Alicia Wells, Director of Public Relations for Allendale Treatment and Ft. Wayne Recovery. She is also the co-founder of Recover Michiana Fest.

A synthetic opioid, which is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, is being added into drugs already infiltrating our community.

“It is in pretty much everything on the street and people who have no tolerance to it, if they take any of it, even 2 mg can be fatal,” explains Nate Moellering. Moellering is the Community Outreach Director for Allendale Treatment and Ft. Wayne Recovery.

Cloey Miller understands this all too well. She lost her brother, Dylan, to an overdose involving fentanyl in January. A pain unimaginable for siblings who were so close.

“It was pretty instant. There are pictures of him holding me as a baby because he wouldn’t let me go,” explains Cloey. “He was always joking and singing random songs, making stuff up on the fly.”

As the years went by, Dylan started experimenting with marijuana, but it always seemed innocent. Then, at the age of eighteen, he moved to Bloomington.

“I didn’t get to say goodbye or anything,” says Cloey. “I was crying all the time because I missed him.”

With birthdays just three days apart, she wanted to visit her brother. What she did not realize, her brother was struggling. He started experimenting with other drugs, party drugs, and then heroin.

“He had just gotten out of a bad relationship, and he was telling my boyfriend that the only reason he got into heroin and some of those downers was so he could feel warmth because he missed someone holding him at night,” says Cloey “We moved him home and then it was just kind of downhill from there, it kept getting worse.”

Dylan was stuck in the downward spiral of addiction.

“To me, it was like nothing I could say or do was going to make him stop. I could fight him about it, I could love him about it, nothing is going to change it,” says Cloey. “There would be times where he was sleeping out here on this couch and I would sit there, and I would watch him sleep to make sure he is still breathing.”

On December 1, 2021, he decided enough was enough and went to rehab. 30 days later, Dylan came home.

“He would come over to our house and play games and hang out with my cat,” says Cloey.

Then, 11 days later, everything changed.

“I got a call from my mom and all she said was ‘he is dead, get over here, he’s dead,’” explains Cloey. “I was in complete denial. I got here and it didn’t sink in with me until I saw five cop cars outside and the ambulance pull of and shut its lights off.”

Killed by an all-too-common concoction of heroin and fentanyl. “I had three days off of work and I wouldn’t get out of bed, I wouldn’t brush my teeth, I wouldn’t brush my hair, I didn’t take a shower,” says Cloey.

“Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid. It can be made fairly easily. It is relatively cheap to manufacture, and it can also be altered so there are all these fentanyl derivatives,” explains Dr. Brandon Zabukovic with Primary Care Partners of South Bend.

“Typically produced in China and brought through Mexico or other points of entry that is being pretty much laced into any drug you can think of on the street,” adds Moellering.

“Fentanyl does have medicinal purposes. So, it is a pain killer usually used for individuals that are end stage of their life. So, extremely potent, you would think someone stage 4 cancer, somebody in hospice, most likely is using fentanyl to take away pain,” says Robin Vida, the Director of Heath Outreach, Promotion and Education for the St. Joseph County Department of Health.

Drug dealers want it because it makes them money. It is inexpensive to buy illegally and used to make their product go further. For example, by mixing it into their heroin, they can sell more, make more money, and get their customers addicted.

While fentanyl has been used in the medical field for decades, it started getting mixed in with other opioids, like heroin, less than 10 years ago. Then, in 2019, fentanyl was found in cocaine, methamphetamine and mixed in with prescription pills like Adderall and Xanax. And today…

“I have had a patient in the last month that overdosed thinking they were using marijuana and there was fentanyl in it,” explains Dr. Zabukovic. “I have never seen anybody that has overdosed using marijuana before. This kind of overdose, like I stopped breathing kind of an overdose.”

“Everything is laced with fentanyl and that is really where we are seeing the majority, if not most of our overdose deaths are related to fentanyl,” says Vida. “Fentanyl in Michiana is almost always included in a death, as it relates to overdose. So, we had 97 overdose deaths last year, in 2021. It was the highest number of overdoses we have ever had.”

Of those 97 overdose deaths, Vida says at least 75 percent were due to fentanyl.

“When we thought we were in a crisis, 2017, 2018, our overdose numbers were in the 50s and 60s. At the time, like 30 percent of the drugs you would find on the street have fentanyl,” says Vida.

“You would be surprised how many people do not know what fentanyl actually is. So, we are trying to get the word out, so people know what fentanyl is, where it is and how potentially to protect their loved ones from having even a nonfatal or fatal overdose because the first time you have a nonfatal, the chances of you having a fatal overdose go up by about 50%,” explains Moellering.

“Fentanyl is killing individuals at a faster speed than any other substance has,” says Wells.

“People that are putting this out on the street, they aren’t pharmacists, chemists, they aren’t being made in a controlled setting where it is a consistent amount of fentanyl,” adds Dr. Zabukovic.

“Fentanyl is affecting everyone. We are seeing it in every part of town, we are seeing it with every background. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, how little money you have, what race you are, what religion you are, it is crossing all social boundaries, everywhere,” says Moellering.

Meaning, there is no room to experiment.

“It’s not fair. You know, my generation, I’m a millennial, we had time to experiment. We, you know, could make mistakes, but now mistakes are costing kids their lives,” says Moellering.

Leaving behind an unimaginable amount of heartbreak.

“How do you get out of bed every day?” Asks Christine.

“I know he is watching over us,” says Cloey.

“So, it’s for him?” Asks Christine.

“Yeah,” responds Cloey. “He could have had it all, if he just tried a little harder.”

According to the Indiana Department of Health’s Drug Overdose Dashboard, the state of Indiana saw 2,316 drug overdose deaths in 2020. That is up from 1,695 deaths in 2019.

Taking an even closer look at some of the counties in our viewing area and keeping in mind some counties have a higher population that others, in 2020, Starke County reported 11 deaths. In 2019, they also reported 11 deaths.

In Pulaski County, they reported 8 deaths in 2020 and 1 in 2019.

In St. Joseph County, they reported 91 deaths in 2020 and 37 in 2019.

In Marshall County, they reported 10 deaths in 2020 and 6 in 2019.

In Fulton County, they reported 6 deaths in 2020 and 6 in 2019.

In Elkhart County, they reported 28 deaths in 2020 and 23 in 2019.

In Kosciusko County, they reported 12 deaths in 2020 and 10 in 2019.

Lagrange County did not list numbers for 2019, but they reported 5 deaths for 2020.

Again, experts say fentanyl is a huge contributor to these rising numbers.

Adding even more validity to the seriousness of fentanyl in our community, as of Monday, the DEA is officially warning the public that in some instances they are seeing marijuana that is laced with fentanyl. This is important because this means the DEA is seeing this enough to cause concern and this is not an isolated incident.

If you are struggling with addiction and are looking to get some help, please call Alicia Wells at 574-413-8778.

Here is a list of a few great resources in our community:

St. Joseph County Department of Health - https://www.in.gov/localhealth/stjosephcounty/

525 Foundation - https://www.525foundation.org/

Drug Enforcement Administration - https://www.dea.gov/

Partnership for a Drug Free St. Joseph County - https://www.thepartnershipsjc.org/

Allendale Treatment - https://allendaletreatment.com/

Ft. Wayne Recovery - https://fortwaynerecovery.com/

Oaklawn - https://oaklawn.org/

Recover Michiana Fest - https://recovermichianafest.org/about

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