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IN REMEMBRANCE: Tina Glosser raises her hand and closes her eyes as she sings during worship at an overdose awareness event at Memorial Gym in August.

Data released Thursday by Howard County Coroner Steve Seele shows that in 2019 the county experienced 31 accidental drug overdose fatalities, the lowest figure since 2016.

Public officials have expressed optimism about the recent decrease in overdose deaths – the year’s final quarter saw three deaths, the lowest overdose-death quarter in over three years.

Seele said that in the months of October, November and December, the county’s three overdose deaths included instances of methadone intoxication; buprenorphine mixed with gabapentin, alcohol and synthetic cannabinoid; and methamphetamine use.

He noted that no deaths were attributed to heroin or Fentanyl, which have both played major roles in causing overdose fatalities in Howard County and across America in recent years.

A recent shift back to methamphetamine, however, has been chronicled by officials in both Howard County and Indiana, bringing the drug back into prominence after years in the shadows.

Still, there is reason for hope, say local officials.

“I contribute the continued decline as a direct result of the efforts to put forth by local officials and Turning Point Systems of Care and law enforcement actions over the last year,” said Seele in a media release when describing the recent decline in overdose deaths.

Howard County recorded its deadliest year ever for overdoses in 2017, when 44 people died. The county then ended 2018 with 33 overdose deaths. There were 24 overdose deaths in 2016 and 34 in 2015.

Those annual totals mean that in the five-year period from 2015-2019 Howard County saw 166 overdose deaths during the height of the ongoing crisis.

The three prior years included 23 confirmed overdose deaths in 2012, compared to 26 deaths in 2013 and 20 in 2014.

With the progress seen specifically during the final months of 2019, Howard County Commissioner Paul Wyman said he has been “extremely impressed with the work of everyone at Turning Point Systems of Care and many other organizations in our community working together to address this difficult drug epidemic.”

“I am not yet ready to say that this is a trend, but clearly having a single access point in our community for individuals and families suffering from substance abuse is making a difference,” he said.

“I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the number of people seeking recovery and taking the steps necessary to begin that journey,” Wyman added. “I want to thank the coroner and his staff for working closely with us, as well as, treating all families who have lost a loved ones with respect and dignity.”

Other death figuresThe Howard County Health Department’s Vital Records Division recorded 261 deaths in Howard County during 2019’s fourth quarter, according to Seele.

Sixty-one of those deaths were investigated by the coroner’s office, and 46 of them were determined as natural causes.

In addition, there was one homicide, one ruled “undetermined,” four suicides and nine accidental deaths.

The nine accidental deaths included an October plane crash near Kokomo that claimed the life of a Florida plastic surgeon, one caused by hypothermia, two resulting from motor vehicle accidents, another two caused by falls and the three overdose deaths.

The coroner’s office conducted 34 autopsies, including 32 toxicology studies, during the fourth quarter, costing nearly $58,200.

Throughout all of 2019, the office conducted 245 death investigations, with an additional 100 consultations that led to “direct releases.” There were 171 natural deaths during the year, 53 attributed to accidents, 12 suicides, five homicides, three undetermined cases and another one still pending.

Overall, there were 126 autopsies conducted by the coroner’s office, including 117 toxicology studies. It amounted to a cost of $212,263.

Seele, however, noted that toxicology testing on suspected drug overdose cases is currently paid through a state grant program.

George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gmyerskt.

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George Myers covers city and county government. He joined the Kokomo Tribune on November 18, 2014.

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