In the last two years, deaths caused by drug overdoses have been cut in half in Johnson County.
But police and health officials have a warning: fewer deaths doesn’t mean fewer people are using drugs.
Instead, police, emergency room doctors and firefighters have had to find a way to help the patients overdosing on heroin or narcotics every week. Now, all local police officers carry a dose of Narcan, which reverses the effects of an overdose, in their vehicles. The drug is also carried by emergency medics and firefighters, and emergency room doctors are seeing fewer overdose deaths because of it.
In 2013, 24 Johnson County people in died from a drug overdose, according to the Johnson County Coroner’s office. In 2014, that number fell to 18. And in 2015, 12 people died from a drug overdose, according to the coroner’s office.
So far this year, five people in Johnson County have died from drug overdoses.
The primary reason for the decrease is due to Johnson County’s firefighters, police and emergency medics carrying Narcan, an antidote that reverses the effect of narcotics and opioids, said Dr. Howard Levitin, a doctor in the emergency room at Franciscan St. Francis Hospital.
More of the patients arriving are awake, alert and can communicate, bettering their chance of survival by telling doctors what drugs they were taking, Levitin said. Before officers and medics started to carry Narcan in 2014, those patients were coming in unresponsive, and doctors had very little time to save their life, Levitin said.
But the problem isn’t solved by Narcan, Levitin said. Nearly every day, at least one patient is coming in who has taken too many drugs, and that’s an indicator the drug problem is significant, Levitin said.
“Overdose incidents, especially from opioids, our sense is they’re increasing. And most of them are due to heroin — it’s a major epidemic,” Levitin said.
“Heroin has become a public health nightmare. The usage is going up, but with the availability of Narcan, there’s less people dying. Narcan has dramatically reduced the (number) of deaths.”
The decrease in overdose deaths due to Narcan is something to be proud of, Johnson County Sheriff Doug Cox said. But the amount of people using drugs, such as heroin, is not going down, he said.
Overdose deaths are most commonly related to heroin use, Johnson County Coroner Craig Lutz said.
And mixing pain pills with other medication and alcohol is the second most common type of overdose death, Lutz said.
“A lot of these overdose deaths are just people who think their tolerance is more than what it is,” Lutz said. “And some of it is depression as well. People take prescription pills and mix with alcohol or other drugs.”