Twenty-six reported cases of overdose in Huntington raised eyebrows throughout the state and country Monday evening. All 26 reports came in over a 4-hour period, putting the city’s emergency responders on high alert. Now Huntington officials are trying to figure out what caused the spike.
Almost half of the 26 reported overdoses happened in an around one east Huntington neighborhood, near the Marcum Terrace housing projects. It was reported that heroin samples were being handed out near the location.
Twelve doses of naloxone were administered, but one person required as many as three of the doses. The drug reverses the effects of an overdose and when paired with medical treatment, can save a person’s life. The rest of the overdose patients were revived using an apparatus called a bag valve mask that helps pump air into the victim’s chest. Huntington Police Chief Joe Ciccarelli said officials aren’t sure what might be different about this batch, but it is different.
"We can speculate, but we don’t know for sure," Ciccarelli said. "When such a batch of heroin comes into town, that’s exactly what someone who is addicted is looking for, they search that out, they want that drug and they want to push themselves right to the edge of overdose or death sadly."
There have been reports throughout the region of heroin being mixed with fentanyl, a strong pain reliever, or carfentanil, a pain reliever meant for large animals. In one house near Marcum Terrace, there were 7 different people who had overdosed.
Jan Rader is a Deputy Fire Chief in Huntington and part of the Mayor’s Office of Drug Control Policy.
"We have overdoses every day, I’ve been on one in a 24-hour period and I’ve been on 10 in a 24-hour period," Rader said. "Typically, when we have one overdose, we just don’t have one, we have multiple and they’re in the same area."
Rader said it’s hard to tell what might have been in the batch of heroin that caused the surge in overdoses. She said local officials doubt it was the stronger Carfentanil because each of the 26 overdose victims was revived, which is uncommon when dealing with the strong drug.
Rader said because they were able to save each of the victims, they might never be sure what this specific batch of heroin was laced with. That’s because when they arrive on the scene, Rader said it’s rare for there to be any of the drug left to test.
"When we typically go on an overdose, the only product that is there is in a syringe, they typically only buy enough for that one hit or for personal use," Rader said. "We don’t have a lot of product lying around when we go in on a drug overdose, what we typically have is drug paraphernalia and we have used syringes, that in itself is a danger to first responders."
Jim Johnson is the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Drug Control Policy. Johnson said whatever the main ingredient was or wasn’t doesn’t make much of a difference in the battle in Huntington.
"What difference does it make if it was pure heroin, or pure fentanyl, or heroin cut with fentanyl or fentanyl cut with heroin, it still gets back to it being an opiate and it’s addiction, we’ve got to trace it back," Johnson said. "Those people that are addicted to the money, we have to get them in jail. The people that are addicted to the opiate we have to try to find a way to get them treatment and back to being a productive part of society."
Johnson said just because everyone is once again paying attention to how Huntington handles the situation doesn’t mean they’re going to change anything. He said they’re always looking for new tools to fight the problem. In the past year, the city has started needle exchange programs, naloxone training for the public and now generally emphasizes harm reduction programs.
Johnson said those prevention methods are all they can do, because arresting more and more people isn’t the answer.
"People that say we haven’t been arresting and people aren’t going to jail, they’re not looking at the data," Johnson said. "The data says that we’re arresting at a higher rate than any country in the world. Should there be people in jail, absolutely. But we’ve got to deal with the problem of addiction, to lessen that. If we don’t lessen that, if we don’t lessen the demand, we’re not going to be successful."
Overdose numbers are up in Huntington this year despite all of the city’s efforts. Through June 16th in Cabell County, there have been 440 overdoses compared to 413 in the same time period in 2015.