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Franklin County Coroner says fentanyl deaths, suicides increased in 2021

Franklin County Coroner Anahi Ortiz briefs the media in 2020 about the latest report showing deaths by suicide, drug overdose and homicide.
WOSU File Photo
Franklin County Coroner Anahi Ortiz briefed the media on February 26, 2020 on deaths by suicide, drug overdose and homicide.

The Franklin County coroner revealed some 2021 death statistics to WOSU ahead of the release of the office’s annual report. The data shows a new “designer” version of fentanyl is on the rise and suicides increased that year after a lull in 2020.

Franklin County Coroner Dr. Anahi Ortiz said while overdose deaths were down in 2021, compared to 2020, it wasn’t by much.

“So in terms of the overdose deaths, what we've seen in 2021 was about a 4% decrease from 2020," she said. "But, if you remember 2020 was huge. So in 2020, when everything was final we had 859 overdose fatalities. And 2021, we're seeing 825 overdose fatalities."

When paired with the fact that there were fewer than 500 overdose deaths in 2017 and 2018, the doctor says a 4% decrease isn’t a welcoming statistic.

And while the total number of deaths may have been down, Dr. Ortiz said the data is alerting officials to another alarming number when it comes to the accidental overdose deaths.

“Eighty-nine percent of those are fentanyl related," Ortiz said. "That's a big whopping number. The year before, it was at 86. I mean, it wasn't low by any stretch, but the trend is up. I mean, we're just seeing more,."

The latest version of the synthetic opioid is called fluorofentanyl.

“I think we only had one death from fluorofentanyl in 2020," she said. "And by 2021, we had 152 that involved fluorofentanyl."

Ortiz said it floods into the country from Mexico after being manufactured in Chinese labs in a way that makes it more difficult to detect.

“It's like almost a designer fentanyl," she said. "It's just, it may be a little bit more difficult to detect when you're doing just regular screenings."

Ortiz says people at risk for accidental overdoses often have unresolved trauma and mental health issues. She said the best way forward are treatments that don’t only address substance use, but also delve into the underlying problem.

“If you have someone with addiction who also has depression or who also has anxiety or has post traumatic syndrome disorder those both need to be treated you can't treat one without treating the other," Ortiz said.

Accidental overdoses are not the only risk for people experiencing unresolved mental health crises.

“In 2021, we saw an increase in suicide, that's about a 10% increase from the year before," she said. "And I, you know, just speculating just from what we've been seeing this year, it's going to be about the same, if not a little more, for 2022," she said.

There were 144 suicides in 2020, which was slightly down when compared to 2018 and 2019.

“A lot of people thought that was attributed to COVID, in terms of folks kind of staying inside and probably being within reach of others," Ortiz said. "You know, the young folks were inside, they weren't in school, they weren't going out. So families were watching them. Same thing with, you know, partners and your elderly, you know, parents and or family, people will kind of keeping a better track of each other."

But, in 2021, the numbers came back up.

“I think in 2021, the full impact of the mental health challenges, to do with COVID and isolation, I think just hit everyone along with everything else going on in the nation right now," she said.

Most suicides were committed by men and most victims used a firearm.

Ortiz is hopeful a some new programs will help make a difference.

The Ohio Suicide Prevention Coalition and the Franklin County Suicide Prevention Coalition are working with gun store owners to "bring this forward as an issue, to be more cognizant of folks who are coming in that may have some sort of symptoms that may lead you to believe they're buying a firearm to die by suicide," Ortiz said.

And, Ortiz said, dedicating the number “988” to the Suicide and Crisis Hotline may help make it a more common resource.

“Everyone knows 911 including, five-year-olds and three-year-olds, right? We've heard stories where they can actually dial 911 when grandma's down or daddy's down. That's the whole reason why they developed 988, so it's one number everyone from Alaska to Florida can remember that number and you just dial the one number," she said.

Ortiz said her office will release the full 2021 report in the next few weeks.

Renee Fox is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News.