Health Indiana News

In 2021, Clark County saw the biggest spike in drug overdose deaths in five years — which one health official said stems from changes in the illegal drug market. 

Clark County Health Officer Dr. Eric Yazel said at least three-quarters of the 73 overdoses deaths recorded last year involved the highly potent opioid fentanyl, and many also involved methamphetamine. 

That’s a big change from the mainly heroin-driven deaths in recent years, which Yazel attributed to a shift in the drug supply. 

“The ability of these chemical labs to synthesize those compounds is what the big game changer has been,” he said. “They’re not dependent on large volumes of product, there are no crops they have to worry about. Their only limit is how much chemical supply they can get.”

This shift will be a big focus of this year’s Drug Facts Week, hosted by grassroots community organization Clark County CARES. 

Monday through Thursday, there will be in-person and livestreamed discussions on the current state of substance abuse in Clark County, the social and economic impacts and paths to recovery. 

Sam Quinones, author of the books “Dreamland,” which focused on the rise of opioids, and “The Least of Us,” the transition to meth and fentanyl and the fallout from that, will be the keynote speaker. Sunday evening, there will be a candlelight vigil at the base of the Big Four Bridge in Jeffersonville for those experiencing or lost to addiction.  

Yazel said he thinks this year’s event will be one of the most important they’ve had, along with the one at the start of the opioid crisis that helped kick start new recovery initiatives. 

“Well now, I think we’re talking about completely different issues,” he said, of this year’s discussions. “Fentanyl and methamphetamine supply, we’re talking about social issues from COVID-19, just a lot of different things.”

Clark County CARES was started in 2015, in the wake of the intravenous drug-fueled HIV outbreak in neighboring Scott County and as opioids started to take a hold in Clark County. It was founded by community members impacted by addiction and now includes health care providers, law enforcement and those in recovery. 

Member Carolyn King said the group has helped raise awareness and implement programming changes, which have in the past few years cut down on the overdoses. 

The loneliness and isolation brought by the pandemic may have been a driver in some of the rise in substance use, she said. 

“But I think introducing fentanyl [and meth]…it’s easy to access, it’s cheap and it’s adding to the overdoses right now,” she said. 

Yazel said the current trends may be more difficult to address, as there isn’t as much evidence-based treatment for meth, and so much of it is cut with fentanyl. 

“I’m really concerned,” he said. “You’re having a drug that no one is having much success getting off of, combined with essentially the most dangerous substance that we’ve ever seen – as far as abuse goes – in fentanyl. It’s just a deadly combination that’s really worrisome.”

Asked if this phase of the addiction crisis is worse than the start of opioids in the area around 2015, King said the overall issue is bigger than that. 

“We’ve got to find out how to stop people from needing to use alternative substances in the first place,” she said, adding that alcohol kills many more people than drugs, just more slowly. 

King said those working to address overdoses need to explore why people are feeling a lack of connection or despair that drives them to substance abuse.

“I think until we really get that drilled down and get to the root cause, it’s going to continue to be a problem,” she said.

Aprile Rickert is WFPL's health reporter.