BY SAMANTHA WILDOW - STAFF WRITER

DAYTON DAILY NEWS IN-DEPTH

Preliminary data show there were approximately 297 accidental overdose deaths in 2023 in Montgomery County, a 6% decline from 2022 and a nearly 48% drop from the high experienced in 2017, when 566 people died of accidental overdoses.

“How we’ve gotten it down (to) almost half as much, I think is a huge accomplishment, and it’s not just an accomplishment for Public Health or (the Montgomery County Community Overdose Action Team). This is really a collaborative work between so many entities in this county that have put this as a priority,” said Dawn Schwartz, Community Overdose Action Team project manager.

Hamilton County also experienced its highest number of accidental overdose deaths in 2017, and that county only had four more than Montgomery County did in 2017, Schwartz said, despite Hamilton County having about 290,000 more people living there.

Montgomery County also experienced an uptick of accidental overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic, which included 323 deaths in 2020, 337 in 2021, and 316 in 2022, according to data from the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office.

The preliminary number of deaths for last year shows accidental overdose deaths continuing to decline and return to pre-pandemic figures of 291 overdose deaths in 2018 and 288 in 2019.

“We are encouraged by the outstanding work of the Community Overdose Action Team in our community and are thankful for all the lives that have been saved,” said Jennifer Wentzel, health commissioner at Public Health – Dayton and Montgomery County.

The goal is that overdose deaths will continue to go down, and what’s important now, Schwartz said, is that substance use disorder is being recognized as a medical issue.

“It is a disease. It is a brain disease, and many times, it is linked to mental health, another brain disease, and/ or trauma, which actually affects the way that your brain works,” Schwartz said.

The Montgomery County Community Overdose Action Team is showing the continued importance of recovery when it comes to substance use disorder with a new logo and tagline incorporating the color purple, which is the universal color of recovery.

“Even though there’s many aspects to the Community Overdose Action Team beyond just pure recovery, recovery is a big aspect to it,” said Dan Suffoletto, Public Health’s public information manager.

The color and new branding is also meant to help reduce stigma around substance use disorder.

“The color purple is a universal sign of recovery, and the message of hope and recovery that it represents will help us further connect with residents who are most in need of support,” said Helen Jones-Kelley, executive director of Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services.

The need for the new branding, which now includes the tagline “ending overdoses together,” came about as the Community Overdose Action Team has continued to grow as an organization, Suffoletto said.

The rising number of deaths due to accidental overdoses in the 2010s spurred area partners like Public Health, Montgomery County ADAMHS, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office and other organization to create the Community Overdose Action Team.

“That’s what started this community coalition with multiple branches focusing on different parts of fighting and combating overdose deaths and addressing recovery,” Schwartz said. Those branches include treatment and recovery, harm reduction, criminal justice and more, Schwartz said. Schwartz is the only member of the team who is salaried.

The remaining team members are volunteers, and they have had more than 240 people lend their expertise, she said.

“As the coalition grew, we started taking on things like strategic plans to work on these specific initiatives to put into place in Montgomery County, to be able to help spur and further recovery and lower our overdose numbers,” Schwartz said. The Community Overdose Action Team will continue pursuing long-term initiatives to reduce deaths and harm, including providing access to Narcan to individuals and businesses to have on hand, along with education on substance use and recovery.

“Our collaborative effort as a community continues to evolve to meet the needs of the epidemic,” said Judy Dodge, a Montgomery County commissioner. “The collective use of resources to combat overdose deaths in Montgomery County will continue to be a focus of our efforts.”

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