Regionwide string of mass heroin overdoses hits Mount Sterling

More Kentuckians know someone with heroin problems, a new poll says.
More Kentuckians know someone with heroin problems, a new poll says. Lexington

With 12 heroin overdoses Wednesday and early Thursday, Mount Sterling has joined Cincinnati, Huntington, W.Va., and other regional cities in seeing a sudden, overnight spike in drug overdoses.

Most of the victims in Mount Sterling and surrounding Montgomery County survived. Coroner Jimmy Adams said Thursday he was aware of one death, a 37-year-old man, among the dozen overdoses reported in the community along Interstate 64 about 35 miles east of Lexington.

“We’ve had overdoses but never that many at one time,” said Montgomery County Sheriff Fred Shortridge.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Jan Chamness, public health director with the Montgomery County Health Department. “We’re obviously at a crisis level, so what do we do now?”

News of the spate of overdoses was shocking to a community where a bag of heroin was found outside an elementary school in March. Montgomery County has a population of more than 27,000; of that number, a little more than 7,000 live in Mount Sterling, the county seat.

A surge of eight or nine overdoses was reported from about 6:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, but some cases came in the early morning hours Thursday, said Jeff Jackson, battalion chief for Montgomery County Fire/EMS. Most of the victims were in their 30s and 40s, and with the exception of two cases, all were in the city limits of Mount Sterling, Jackson said. Some cases were transported to the hospital by private vehicles and not by Montgomery County Fire/EMS.

The rash of overdoses came in the wake of a midweek spate of more than 50 heroin overdoses from Tuesday morning to Wednesday night in Cincinnati. One person died.

Cincinnati police suspect that a batch of heroin mixed with fentanyl, Carfentanil or even rat poison might be to blame for the wave of overdoses.

Another 14 overdoses, including one death, were reported Tuesday in Jackson and Jennings counties in southern Indiana, 50-60 miles north of Louisville, police there reported. And 26 overdoses were reported Monday in Huntington-Cabell County, W.Va.

Danville and Boyle County had five drug-related deaths over a three- or four-week period in July, said Boyle County Coroner Dr. Don Hamner.

“They were heroin- or fentanyl-related,” Hamner said. “One we thought might have been heroin just showed morphine in the system.”

The range of ages in the victims was from 23 to 50, Hamner said.

Van Ingram, executive director of the state Office of Drug Control Policy, said it’s too early to say whether the more potent heroin reported in neighboring areas of Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia are from the same source.

“That certainly begs the question, doesn’t it?” Ingram said. “When something like this is happening within the same time frame, happening in Cincinnati as it is happening in Mount Sterling, it begs the question about supply routes. Is that where Mount Sterling’s heroin is coming from? It certainly would give some indication of that, but without extensive lab testing there is no way to know.”

Van Ingram said he contacted the Kentucky State Police Drug Identification Section on Thursday to talk about the testing that can be done in regard to the recent overdose spikes.

“It’s a very scary thing,” Van Ingram said. “What we see across the country is the drug cartels moving away from heroin and moving toward these opioids they’re going to produce themselves. People think they’re buying one thing and they’re actually buying another. The stuff they’re selling is so powerful. Some of the stuff we’re seeing produced is 50 times more potent than heroin, as if heroin wasn’t bad enough.”

For example, in the the southern Indiana cases, police believe the drugs were laced with Carfentanil, which is 10,000 times stronger than morphine and is used commercially to sedate elephants.

Mount Sterling police carry naloxone, a medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Jackson, the battalion chief, said the sheriff’s office will be trained next week in the use of naloxone. But when heroin is cut with other substances, such as Carfentanil, it can take more doses to revive a person.

Naloxone can ease the effects of the drug once it’s in a community, said Chamness, the public health director. “The question is how are we going to stop it from coming in altogether? This was obviously a bad batch and we’re finding more of those. Heroin abusers are at a point where there is no level of rationale, there’s no level of ‘That’s too high a risk for me.’ It’s whatever they need to do to get their next high. It’s sad.”

Detectives with the Mount Sterling police department were already scheduled to speak at a “heroin forum” on Sept. 16 at Montgomery County High School.

Mount Sterling police said in the Facebook post that addicts should be aware of the more potent heroin.

“Naturally we would prefer you seek treatment as opposed to using,” the post said, “but are also realistic enough to know that not all will. If you do wish help, we have several hotlines available as well as other treatment options. Several of these are listed on Montgomery County ADAPT’s (Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Team) Facebook page and website.”

More than 47,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2014, with opioids including heroin and fentanyl accounting for nearly 60 percent of that total.

Drug overdose deaths climbed to a record level in Kentucky in 2015, and fentanyl is considered a key factor in the increase.

The number of heroin users in the United States reached one million in 2014, a 20-year high, and heroin-related deaths have increased fivefold since 2000, according to a United Nations study published in June.