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2021 OD deaths down, early 2022 data indicates possible increase

Despite a dip in overdose deaths in 2021, Butler County may see increasing drug issues in 2022.

Det. Tim Fennell, chief of the Butler County Drug Task Force, said he sees troubling signs on the horizon with the number of overdose deaths escalating so far this year.

In 2021, 66 Butler County residents died from drug overdoses, seven fewer than the number of residents who died from overdoses in 2020. Less than three months into this year, the county has already confirmed more than 25 percent of last year’s total.

As of mid-March, 17 deaths were confirmed to be from drug overdoses, with two that were pending.

“It’s never going to be enough until the number is zero,” said Donna Jenereski, director of the county’s drug and alcohol programs.

Jenereski said a lot contributed to the decreases seen in 2021. The county’s programs provide education for the community and Narcan for treatment providers and residents, as well as support for providers, who, Jenereski said, overachieved expectations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Treatment providers have really stepped up and have been creative,” she said.

Providers react

Misty Miller, who heads the CARE Center in Butler, said she is encouraged to see fewer people died last year from overdoses, despite difficult circumstances brought forth by pandemic restrictions. The CARE Center remained open throughout the pandemic.

Miller said COVID-19 restrictions decreased face-to-face interactions and treatment options, shuttered support groups and increased stress on the already vulnerable. Miller said telehealth became invaluable in combating these obstacles.

“During the pandemic, all (of the CARE Center’s) clients had the option of participating in their treatment via video sessions or telephone,” she said. “During this time, we connected clients with certified recovery specialists who are mobile and could meet the client in their home or in the community.“

Miller said the center still offered in-person sessions to people who wanted them, but mostly they saw a hybrid use of both remote and in-person visits.

“The pandemic has challenged us to adapt our services; however, the collaboration efforts between agencies within our county allowed for best treatment possible for our consumers,” Miller said.

Similar to 2017

No agency focuses more on local drugs than the Butler County Drug Task Force, a branch of the District Attorney Rich Goldinger’s office.

“Our No. 1 priority is to go after the dealers selling fentanyl,” Fennell said. “Our main objective is to prevent people from dying.”

He finds the spike in overdose deaths so far this year troubling.

“It’s almost identical to 2017,” Fennell said. “That was an odd year.”

This year, by mid-March, 17 people had died from drug overdoses with two cases pending test results. By about the same time in 2017, 21 county residents had lost their lives, mostly to heroin and fentanyl.

The county eventually would lose 92 residents that year, the highest number lost to drug overdoses in a given year, since 2013, when 30 people died. Since 2017, Fennell said, the numbers have fluctuated, and during that time the drug of choice has shifted entirely to fentanyl.

“It’s seldom we see (fentanyl) mixed with heroin,” Fennell said.

Fennell said all 17 residents who died from overdose deaths so far this year had fentanyl in their system, though it was mixed with other controlled substances for some.

Fennell said there isn’t any way to predict whether 2022 will be as bad as 2017, but if the situation remains the same, the track is heading toward a dangerous problem, leaving many families and survivors in its wake.

“We know and deal with the families, the survivors, the loved ones,” Fennell said. “That’s not easy on anyone.”

Lost loves

A relative of a local man has struggled to come to terms with the death of their loved one.

Jackson Blakely was 22 years old when he died in June 2020 due to an overdose. A Butler High School graduate, Blakely was described in his obituary as “funny, handsome, charming, charismatic, witty and even sometimes silly.”

According to his relative, Blakely often volunteered with First United Methodist Church, delivering meals during Christmastime every year. He also volunteered with Bible school.

His relative said Blakely’s spirit hid his struggles with drug addiction.

“Jackson was just a giving, wonderful person,” his relative said. “He was a good kid who went the wrong way.”

Blakely’s relative said they knew Blakely had a problem with substance abuse, but they thought that substance was alcohol or marijuana.

“(Once,) he fell down the steps and laughed and laughed and laughed about it,” they said. “I guess I just fooled myself into thinking he wasn’t doing (harder drugs).”

Blakely had been charged and under investigation for selling drugs, something his relative knew, but they said fentanyl silently killed Blakely, and continues to kill people today.

“It’s impacted every single day of my life. They say you can’t get over it. Of course, you can’t get over it,” the relative said. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve had to live with in my life.“

Blakely’s relative said they would like to see more to help those in recovery. They said there is a lot of money coming to the community, and they want to see more proactive uses of those funds.

“Fentanyl is not an overdose. It’s a killer,“ they said. “One drop of fentanyl will kill you.”

Blakely’s relative, who has been in recovery for many years, said they, too, know the struggles of addiction, and believes people can make the change that will save their lives.

“Never give up,” said Blakely’s relative. “Keep talking to God. Keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

Collaboration key

Multiple people and organizations attended a conference March 17, called “Courageous Conversations: A Collective Commitment to Promote and Support Recovery.”

The event brought together a range of people involved in the county’s recovery community, including those in recovery, providers and law enforcement.

The event’s purpose was to stride further in recovery services by pooling resources and making deeper connections between services.

The event’s organizer, Kayla Rennie of AmeriCorps VISTA, said, in theory, when a person in recovery finishes one step of the process, that provider should be able to schedule, send them or help them reach the provider for the next step.

Jenereski said that goal is alive in Butler County, and they continue to improve on collaboration every day.

"It's a combination of a lot of different things," Jenereski said.