Southern Indiana
Erica Peterson | wfpl.org

Dr. Eric Yazel explains the different services Clark County’s syringe service program offers.

A Southern Indiana county is on pace to have one of its worst years ever for opioid overdoses.

Last week, the Clark County Health Department received two notifications from the Electronic Surveillance System for the Early Notification of Community-based Epidemics, or ESSENCE. Health officer Dr. Eric Yazel said the system sends the notifications when a high number of overdoses are treated at local hospitals.

Between Aug. 22 and Aug. 26, 21 people came to Clark Memorial’s emergency department because of an overdose. Another notification was sent after 12 overdoses were treated in a little more than a day, from Aug. 25 to the early morning of Aug. 27.

“Those are just ones that made it to the ER that were entered in the tracking system,” Yazel said. “We lose some of that data. Not all of it makes it from the ER into the system, and then that doesn’t even factor in overdoses that were revived out in the field and things like that.”

Yazel said multiple factors could be behind the spike. Some people may be experiencing higher levels of stress and financial difficulties due to the pandemic. Changes in the recovery process over the past 18 months, including lack of face-to-face peer support, could also play a role.

“You’ve got more users, probably, at baseline from some of those factors, and then a potentially more potent supply,” he said. “So that makes for a deadly combination.”

But the rise in overdoses isn’t limited to recent weeks. Clark County is on pace to set a new record for hospital visits from overdoses this year.

More than 50 people in Clark County have died from overdoses so far in 2021. If the county keeps up its current pace, 76 will die by the end of the year, the second highest total on record.

Yazel said Clark County’s worst year happened in 2016, when 89 people died from overdoses. In the years that followed, overdoses dropped by about 40%. But that progress was undone when the pandemic hit.

Yazel said many treatment centers are back to operating normally. But he said interruptions in treatment earlier in the pandemic might have made the recovery process more difficult for some people.

“Somebody doesn’t have a relapse, and then, ‘Okay, our services are back and you’re better again in two weeks,’” Yazel said. “It’s not starting all the way over again, but it’s not far from it. And so I think it’ll take months before we start seeing improvement in some of the data around here, and we want to make sure we’re doing all we can to keep our citizens safe as we navigate that.”

John Boyle covers southern Indiana communities and health for WFPL News. He is a Report for America Corps member.