Drug overdose deaths decline in St. Joseph Co. in 2018

ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Ind. (WNDU) - Doctors have dialed back dramatically on writing prescriptions for opioid painkillers in St. Joseph County.

The phenomenon at the pharmacy involves a 22 percent decrease in such prescriptions when comparing numbers for the third quarter of 2018 to figures from the first quarter of 2017.

“We took to heart, St. Joseph County took to heart that we have to do better. We don’t’ want new addicts,” St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter said. “No addict ever starts taking heroin. No addict ever starts taking fentanyl; an addict starts by legitimately being prescribed an opiate prescription.”

In the first quarter of 2017, doctors wrote 60,429 opioid prescriptions in St. Joseph County while that number fell to 47,341 for the third quarter of 2018.

While 52 people died from drug overdoses in the county in 2018, that was actually five fewer than the year before.

“We had 52 this year, we had 57 the year before. Midwest averages a 17 percent increase in overdose deaths,” Cotter said. “So, we have either flatlined for the last three years and then we’re reducing. In the Midwest, it's rising 17 percent.”

Statistics for 2018 also revealed that a majority of the 2018 overdose deaths were associated with heroin and fentanyl.

“Three years ago, for example, two years ago, the majority of our deaths were associated with prescription drugs,” Cotter explained.

Amy Cressy with the St. Joseph County Drug Investigation Unit says fentanyl is available by prescription, but that’s not the type she’s seeing.

“What we’re seeing, streetwise, is fentanyl coming into the country from Mexico, it’s coming into the country from Asia,” she said.

Fentanyl can be deadly for drug users and investigators if absorbed through the skin or inhaled.

Drug Investigation Unit Commander David Wells said he recently acquired a new “TruNarc” handheld analyzer that will protect officers from fentanyl in the field.

“So, what this does, it allows you to test the drug through the bag without even opening the bag,” he said.

Cotter feels the 2018 statistics are encouraging overall.

“We're moving in the right direction," he said. "I don't think there's any question about that. When you have fewer deaths, that means that something's working. When you have fewer prescriptions that are being written, that means there's less of a supply.”