Gahanna police responded to 11 opiate overdoses in the city within a month earlier this year, and first-responders and the city's schools dealt with fatalities as a result of the epidemic at the end of 2016, officials said.

Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools Superintendent Steve Barrett said he knew of cases in which students didn't want to go to school for fear that loved ones wouldn't be there when they got home.

It isn't surprising that issues with opiates are occurring in central Ohio as each day in the United States, about 129 people die as a result of a drug overdose, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment Summary.

More than 250 central Ohio residents died of accidental drug overdoses last year, and about eight people die each day across the state from overdose, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

Opiate addiction, a potentially deadly condition, requires long-term treatment and care to promote recovery.

It is recognized as a brain disorder that is caused by the use of opiate-based drugs such as Oxycontin, morphine, oxycodone, opium, heroin and others. According to the National Department of Justice website, opioids bind to mu-opioid receptors on the nerve cells in the brain and body to reduce pain when used legitimately, but can also cause intense euphoria or intense high that can lead to dependence and/or addiction, whether the drug ingested is heroin or a legally prescribed drug.

Ever since an opiate summit was held in the Gahanna community in late April, city officials, Mifflin Township Division of Fire officials, Gahanna police and the Gahannna-Jefferson schools have been strategizing how to best partner with the community in dealing with the problem.

Paramedic program

"We recognize how important this is," said Fred Kauser, Mifflin Township fire chief. "Each of us has taken time to see what we can do as our part to make a difference.

"When one individual in our community has a problem, we all have a problem," he said. "Our strategic alliances are intended to help the citizens work through this opiate challenge at the neighborhood and family level."

Mifflin Township has created a community paramedic program, providing one-on-one support to families dealing with addiction.

"They work with a variety of intake facilities and medical facilities to get people where they need to go," Kauser said.

He said Mifflin and community partners care about creating an opportunity to learn.

"As a parent of five kids, I didn't know there was a marketing machine out there to bring drugs to my kids intentionally," he said.

"Together, we want to get the community engaged in learning activities or through summits. We want to create times and places where individuals can get together to learn."

Kauser said the fire department goes to homes, sometimes multiple times, in dealing with addiction.

"We realize addiction to opiates is very different," he said. "One dose of any measure can result in a fatality. The drug behaves differently than other addictive drugs."

Kauser said someone on opiates faces a challenge in their ability to stop.

"We wanted to ask the question, 'What can we do together to help those who have a need and make an adjustment that could prevent more fatalities in the future?' "

Kauser said Mifflin wants to contribute to the resolution of the problem.

"It will take neighbor to neighbor, every citizen," he said. "We aren't bringing the solution. We think there are steps we can all do."

Coordination of efforts

Gahanna Deputy Police Chief Jeff Spence said local efforts really came together after 11 overdoses in February.

"We quickly realized that we were reaching a crisis point, so we partnered with the fire department and school system and that's what led to the opiate roundtable that was successful in April."

From there, he said, it grew into a number of conversations where officials realized it wasn't just an education effort.

"It's a public-awareness effort and making sure information is free-flowing and efforts are coordinated among all entities including public health, fire, school, job creators and other city services," he said.

Spence said a number of studies link the most recent economic downturn -- the explosive rate of job loss -- with opiate use.

"Having job training and lower unemployment is another component," he said.

Spence said police have been going to all Gahanna neighborhoods as a result of opiate addiction, dealing with residents as young as 14 and older than 70.

He said it's a tough job to discourage drug use, but the issue is that someone may have a legitimate gateway into opiates that people don't realize as potential trouble.

"A painkiller is prescribed for a sports injury and kids get addicted to opiates," Spence said. "A sports injury can lead to a cycle of addiction. It's a common analogy."

He said police have encountered people unconscious in traffic as a result of overdoses.

"Those videos are shocking, but not out of the norm," he said. "It goes back to the schools being so critical and the school resources officers."

He said the pressure comes at middle school and high school and that's where the SROs make a difference.

"A lot of times the things they prevent aren't quantifiable," Spence said. "It's a completely different dynamic with intervention and prevention."

He said students might be in the cycle, dealing with an addicted parent or older sibling.

With this epidemic, Spence said, community partners realized it would be an ongoing outreach process.

He said most of the crimes in Gahanna are property-related thefts, and a vast percentage are linked to financing a drug habit.

"I think our focus moving forward is to get the information out in terms of the epidemic and the ways it touches every fabric of the city," he said.

Plans for the future

Barrett said a multifaceted approach is needed.

"None of us can solve this problem alone," he said. "It's great to have SROs at the high school to talk to kids about the problems they're having. As we see addiction take off, it generally happens between 18 and 29 years old and beyond."

Barrett said some parents didn't realize it was a problem in the community.

"It affects all demographics," he said. "We're trying to make school purposeful and helpful for kids to find a path and (something they're) passionate about is very important. We're afraid if you don't have a plan, you may have a plan to fail."

Barrett said a number of employers in the community are hiring and one impediment to getting a job is addiction.

"We hear that all the time," he said. "We talked with one company -- a steel factory -- with the mayor (Tom Kneeland). They (company officials) went through 600 applications and whittled it down to 200. Their concern was safety. If someone is affected by a drug in the workplace, they will be a danger to themselves and others."

Barrett said it's great to have a community where everyone is coming together in an organic way to solve the problem of addiction.

Franklin County plan

To address the ongoing opiate addiction crisis, a Franklin County Opiate Action Plan was unveiled in June.

It was created by the Alcohol Drug and Mental Health Board of Franklin County at the direction of the Franklin County Board of Commissioners and Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther.

Amy O'Grady, a senior policy analyst for Columbus City Council, is overseeing city and county efforts to fight the epidemic.

She said work is being done on different action items under four topics: prevention and community education; health care and risk reduction; treatment and supports; and first-responders and law enforcement.

"We added on a fifth component: recovery and community engagement," she said. "(Columbus City Council President Zack) Klein was interested in letting the public know what we were doing on a regular basis.

"He wanted a strong focus on recovery efforts to sustain long-term recovery."

O'Grady said subcommittees meet on a monthly basis to deal with issues.

"There's not a silver bullet," she said. "We're working on it from multiple fronts."

In creating the plan, ADAMH collaborated with stakeholders from across the region and gathered input from more than 100 experts, as well as from people in recovery and family members of residents who have died from an overdose.

The strategy identifies specific actions for each of the next three years to address each of plan's overarching goals.

"We made it clear it's a countywide plan," O'Grady said. "We invited first-responders from all parts of the county and the Central Ohio Mayors and Managers Association. We're continuing outreach and talking about particular projects."

One of those is Dublin's "Take-Back Tuesday" initiative that launched this month.

It involves collecting unused and expired prescription pills at various parks around the city to provide a convenient, safe way for residents to dispose of their unused medications.

"We are talking about how it's going, so we can spread it," O'Grady said. "We want to make sure we can get the message out from all of the county."

To download the full Franklin County Opiate Action Plan, visit https://adamhfranklin.org/opiateactionplan. Those who know of someone who needs help with opiate addiction, call 614-276-2273 (adults) or 614-722-9372 (age 17 and under).

Kauser said Mifflin and community partners are interested in things that prevent addiction, targeted at students in school and young adults. He said residents can contact Mifflin fire, Gahanna police or the schools to participate in prevention activities.

"If there's any way you think you can help all of us overcome the current opiate challenge in our own city of Gahanna, reach out," he said.

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla