CINCINNATI (AP) — Officials in several states are scrambling to deal with a series of heroin overdose outbreaks affecting dozens of people and involving at least six deaths.
The spikes in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia over the past few days have seen rescue workers rushing from scene to scene to provide overdose antidote drugs.
While it's unclear if one dealer or batch is responsible for the multistate outbreak, the spikes reflect the potency of heroin flooding the Midwest.
In Cincinnati, police on Friday asked for the public's help in identifying the source of the heroin behind an estimated 78 overdoses in two days.
Officials in surrounding Hamilton County are calling the latest onslaught of overdose cases a public health emergency. County Health Commissioner Tim Ingram said the number of emergency room incidents over the last six days was "unprecedented."
Emergency rooms estimate they had 174 suspected opioid overdose cases this week, including three deaths. Last year, accidental drug overdoses killed 3,050 people in Ohio, an average of eight per day, state officials said.
A record high 47,055 people died from drug overdoses in the United States in 2014, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That was up 7 percent from the year before, spurred by large increases in heroin and opioid painkiller deaths.
The spikes in overdoses might be much worse without naloxone, a now widely available overdose antidote that many first responders such as firefighters carry. In Ohio alone, emergency medical personnel last year administered nearly 19,800 doses of naloxone, known by the brand name Narcan.
In Mount Sterling, Kentucky, one person died following a series of 12 heroin overdoses that occurred within hours of each other on Wednesday. Most of the victims were in their 30s or 40s, said Jeff Jackson, battalion chief for the Montgomery County Fire Department.
In Huntington, West Virginia, an Ohio man was charged with heroin distribution in connection with 27 drug overdoses in a few hours last week, a federal prosecutor said Friday.
Bruce Lamar Griggs was arrested after the Aug. 15 spate of overdoses clustered around an apartment complex in Huntington, a city of 49,000 residents already badly battered by drug abuse and overdoses. He made an initial court appearance Thursday in Ohio and will be transported to West Virginia. A message left with his public defender in Ohio was not immediately returned.
In southeastern Indiana, Jennings County Sheriff Gary Driver said a wave of drug overdoses Tuesday killed one person and left 14 hospitalized.
In Cincinnati, City Manager Harry Black said authorities suspect carfentanil, a drug used to sedate elephants, may be mixed in with heroin and causing the overdoses. The drug is 100 times more potent than fentanyl, which is suspected in spates of overdoses in several states.
Last month, carfentanil was discovered in the Cincinnati area's heroin stream, but many hospitals don't have the equipment to test blood for it.
In Hamilton County, officials say they will seek funding for treatment and expanded response teams. Each team would include a law enforcement officer, an emergency responder and a specialist who could treat people who've overdosed, County Commissioner Dennis Deters said.
The Addiction Services Council of Cincinnati noted that the city doesn't have enough places to treat the rising number of drug users who seek help.
"People overwhelmingly want help," council facilitator Nan Franks said. "But we have to have a place to take them."