Mayor's Task Force Revamped as Fatal Overdoses Increase

The number of fatal drug overdoses so far this year are already close to eclipsing 2016's totals, according to the Vanderburgh County Coroner Steve Lockyear. Meanwhile, in order to better address drug use in Evansville, Mayor Lloyd Winnecke's No Meth Task Force has been revamped into the Substance Abuse Task Force.

So far this year, there have been 45 fatal overdoses, Lockyear said. That figure does not include cases in which toxicology test results are still pending. In 2016, there were 50 fatal overdoses. Of the 45 deaths so far in 2017, at least 15 of those are directly tied to heroin, fentanyl or some combination of the two.

"Overdoses overall have exploded this year," Lockyear said. "The concern we always have with heroin and fentanyl death are that they come in groups when we have a new fatal shipment , so to speak, comes to town."

The heroin epidemic has continued to shatter families, in addition to straining Lockyear's budget. The coroner's office hired an additional investigator whose caseload is already mounting, Lockyear said.

"We'll spend over $150,000 this year on the cost of investigating overdose deaths," Lockyear said. "The impact financially on the taxpayers is great. Even going past the overdose and investigation is the burial cost to the taxpayers and the families."

The growing number of overdoses comes as Mayor Winnecke's 'No Meth Task Force' has been broadened to include all forms of substance abuse. The new-look Substance Abuse Task Force features more than 20 professionals who deal with different aspects of substance abuse, including law enforcement, prevention, addiction treatment, public health and more.

The reason for the changes is due to the continued evolution of drug use in the city and county, Winnecke said. The task force hopes to compile data from various stakeholders in order to better identify and address substance abuse-related issues.

"Every institution that provides assistance to those who have substance abuse issues keeps records in a different way so we're trying to track records from our area hospitals, our health providers, treatment centers, law enforcement and the jail," Winnecke said.

While it has a new name and a new website, the task force's overall goals will be the same: help the community understand and effectively address the problem of substance abuse; promote effective ways to prevent substance abuse, and help promote access to treatment and recovery.

There's also the battle to overcome the stigma of addiction.

"We've often referred to people as addicts and junkies which carries, in many ways, a negative connotation," said Dr. William Wooten, the task force's chairman. "That stigma, according to researchers, is a major barrier to those seeking help. There's a lot of shame, guilt, remorse... about seeking help if you have a problem you don't want to tell anybody about."

Lockyear said the mayor's revamped task force is a great idea. More education and more awareness can only help, Lockyear said. Overall, it appears that local residents are beginning to fully realize how significant the issue is, Lockyear said.

"I think they are learning. It's become so prevalent and widespread that they know somebody or heard of somebody who has died from this," Lockyear said.

In addition to an increasing number of fatal drug overdoses, suicides are also experiencing a spike, Lockyear said. There have been a total of 38 suicides so far this year, compared to 40 total last year. A large majority of the suicides this year had some sort of substance abuse as a precursor, Lockyear said.

Click here to visit the Substance Abuse Task Force's new website.
 


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