September 13, 2020
Concern from County Coroner as Overdose Deaths Increase

Her anguish was evident over the phone. These days, it seems any grouping of statistics she releases is worse than the last. That’s been the reality facing Franklin County Coroner Dr. Anahi Ortiz, the woman in charge of reporting significant death rates in the county. Doing so during an opioid epidemic, which has agonized the state of Ohio, hasn’t made the job easy.

“To be completely honest, I’m just devastated things aren’t better,” said Ortiz. “This is happening in the community I live in. This is happening to people I know, and people you know.”

In early August, Ortiz’s preliminary statistics showed a 65% increase in overdose deaths in Franklin County during the first six months of the year, when compared to the same period in 2019. Coroners in Cuyahoga and Hamilton counties have also reported an increase in overdose deaths in at least a portion of 2020. Ortiz says there’s a direct correlation between the increasing death rates and the impact people have endured from COVID-19.

“There’s a lot of despair out there. The stresses are evident with unemployment and poverty. [Statistically] this year started off worse than last year and then COVID-19 came along,” said Ortiz. “I’m telling you, it’s going to be a lot worse by the time this is all over.”

To be completely honest, I'm just devastated things aren’t better. This is happening in the community I live in. This is happening to people I know, and people you know.
- Dr. Anahi Ortiz

More than a dozen times during 2020, Ortiz has sent out alerts to the community about a sudden high volume in overdose deaths. In April, she reported there were 62 suspected overdose deaths in Franklin County and on May 3, she sent an alert that noted the county had experienced 28 overdose deaths in a 24-hour period alone.

Ortiz says she knows there are areas where the community can do better to prevent these numbers from continuing to get worse. One of the commonalities she’s seen in those who have overdosed is the experience of trauma from a young age.

“We’re seeing more and more that many of the people who have struggled have a history of trauma. In some cases, it’s child abuse or rape, or it might be witnessing violence,” said Ortiz. “We have to do a better job of knowing what’s going on in the lives of these kids [so] we can address it and prevent possible addiction that we see in so many.”

She notes early life trauma is just one of the many areas that has exasperated the opioid epidemic. She says each and every person can play a role in protecting the lives of those vulnerable to addiction, especially during COVID-19, which has forced people into isolation.

“These people need our support. A lot of the support groups and medical services are now happening virtually, and virtual doesn’t work for a lot of folks trying to recover,” said Ortiz.

For many, virtual connections aren’t even possible without access to a cellphone or internet. And for those who can connect with others on a screen, virtual connectivity still doesn’t have the same impact as face-to-face interaction. Ortiz says there are ways to stay safe from COVID-19 while supporting people in person, by wearing masks and meeting in a place where social distancing can be properly practiced, like in a park, a front yard or even a large conference room.

“People need to educate themselves, pay attention and realize this problem is real,” said Ortiz.

Click here for tips on how to talk to your kids about opioids.

If you or a loved one need help, the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services has introduced the COVID CareLine. Through the support line, individuals can receive confidential emotional support. The number is toll-free and staff members can be reached from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., 7 days a week by calling 1-800-720-9616. More information on the COVID CareLine is available at mha.ohio.gov.