The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, July 21, 2021 1:00 am

County hears grim report on overdoses

2008-19: Up 238%, fentanyl on rise


When people overdosed in Allen County in 2019, they most often had five classes of drugs in their system, with the most prevalent the powerful synthetic opioid painkiller fentanyl.

That's just one of several findings in a new report on Fort Wayne-area drug deaths between 2008 and 2019. The report was presented by its author during Monday's meeting of the board of Allen County Department of Health.

John Henry Reith, a health department intern who will be a senior at Wabash College, compiled the study last year. His work was supervised by Jana Sanders, a health department specialist in health informatics. 

Using coroner's, police and health records, he tallied 874 overdose deaths between 2008 and 2019. The number of overdoses more than tripled from 40 in 2008 to 136 in 2019.

The average age of those overdosing also got younger during that time – from 41 to 39. The trend was driven by sharp increases in overdoses in the 35-to-44 and 25-to-34 age groups beginning in 2014.

That's about the same time the number of overdoses overtook vehicle crashes as a cause of death in Allen County, and the first time drug seizures of fentanyl by Fort Wayne police outstripped seizures of heroin, the report says.

The report also found the percentage of young people who intentionally died through overdose also crept up – from no one in the 15-to-25 age group and 1% in the 25-to-34 age group in 2008 to 7% and 6% respectively in 2019. 

Reith said the study also revealed another noteworthy fact – in 2019, most overdoses took place in residences, either the home of the overdosing person or that of someone else.

Combined with findings that most overdoses – 51% – were in people who had graduated from high school and 74% were employed, the survey dispelled a common notion about people who overdose.

“These are not just vagrants or homeless people, but those who are part of the community,” Reith said.

That point was underscored by a finding that the 46835 ZIP code in northeast Fort Wayne and Allen County  – with a median household income of more than $62,000 in 2019 – was in the top five residence areas of those who overdosed  that year.

The top two ZIP codes where overdoses happened in 2019 are 46808, northwest of downtown, with 21, and 46803, south and east of downtown, with 13.

Fifty-seven percent of those overdosing in 2019 had more than one drug in their system – although not all the drugs were illicit.

Fentanyl – a drug federal officials say is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine – was involved in 67% of overdoses. Cocaine or heroin followed at 38%, followed by marijuana at 35% and alcohol at 32%.

Mental illness diagnoses and previous substance abuse were each found in nearly half of overdoses in 2019, the study found. High blood pressure was found in one out of four overdoses.

Reith said the findings argue for several strategies, including getting the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, often called Narcan, into more homes. That's called for even though the report found that two-thirds of those who died did not have anyone else with them to administer the drug, he said.

Reith also suggested more targeted educational efforts in ZIP codes with higher overdose numbers.

“I hope the study brings some attention to how nondiscriminatory addiction and opioids are,” said Reith, 21, a Bishop Dwenger graduate who lives in Leo-Cedarville.

“I hope it can educate some law enforcement and policymakers on what drugs are causing problems in our community and how.”

This story has been corrected.

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