Increasing Opioid Overdoses: Death Trailers Travel across Struggling Ohio Counties


ohio death trailers

Even though coroner’s offices across Ohio are filled to capacity, death tolls for opioid overdoses continue to climb. This has forced officials in several counties to seek assistance from the state, requesting the use of air conditioned trailers to temporarily store victims.

These 20-foot-long cold storage vehicles, somberly referred to as “death trailers,” have been transported to countless Ohio coroner’s offices in the past year. Originally, these trailers were built to handle casualties from large-scale catastrophes like epidemics and plane crashes. Now, they’re attending to deaths from one of the state’s most pressing threats — opioid addiction.

Where it’s Happening

Not a single county across the state of Ohio has been left untouched by the opioid epidemic — the widespread demand for death trailers is a quiet, grave testament to this fact.

A case in point: Just last February, the Montgomery County Coroner’s office was forced to request one of these trailers from the state, despite upgrading their facilities in 2016. The need came after the office handled 25 deaths — 18 caused by drug overdoses — just two days into the month. Thirty-three days into the new year, the same office saw 163 accidental overdose deaths — more than half of their yearly totals in both 2015 and 2016.

“We’re running at full capacity…We’ve never experienced this volume of accidental drug overdoses in our history.”Kenneth M. Betz, Director of Montgomery County Coroner’s office

Cuyahoga, the county where Cleveland calls home, was also forced to use one of these trailers after a record high month for heroin and fentanyl overdoses in February left 60 confirmed dead.

A month later, Stark County ran into a similar problem when bodies continued to come in after the coroner’s office was completely full. Rick Walter, an investigator for the office, was so busy dealing with the surge in casualties that he put in a request for a death trailer on his way back from two death scenes: an overdose and a suicide.

Unfortunately, this problem didn’t begin in 2017. Last summer, neighboring Summit County was forced to borrow cold storage trailers from the state to accommodate sharp spikes in overdoses attributed to a deadly new opioid — carfentanil. Traditionally used as an elephant tranquilizer, this dangerous drug is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and has begun to ravage communities across the state.

Around the same time last year, a comparable situation arose in Cincinnati after the city saw an unprecedented 174 heroin overdoses in just six days. Many of these casualties were also connected to toxic combinations of heroin and carfentanil.

If something doesn’t change soon, these dramatic increases in accidental drug overdoses across the state will likely get worse. With the use of deadly variations of opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil becoming more popular, many counties are currently on track to double previous yearly totals of overdose deaths.

How the Opioid Epidemic Reached this Point

While opioid consumption in the state has shifted to favor stronger synthetic street drugs, the substance-use disorders of many Ohioans began in a doctor’s office. In the early 2000s, the introduction of new prescription painkillers, coupled with deceptive advertising practices downplaying their risks, led many doctors to prescribe addictive opioids like OxyContin®, Percocet® and Vicodin® to patients suffering from chronic pain.

Unfortunately, these drugs did more harm than good, leaving many patients physically dependent on them while feeling few improvements in pain. Pill mills, or places where an individual doctor, clinic or pharmacy prescribes opioids irresponsibly, were quickly established to exploit the state’s growing population of addicts. In 2007, accidental overdoses surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death in Ohio.

Troubled by the rapid rise in overdoses, the state of Ohio worked with the Ohio Pharmacy Board to create a prescription monitoring program in 2004 called OARRS to stop the abusive, irresponsible practices of pill mills. After opioid prescriptions reached a 12.6 million peak in 2012, statewide and organizational measures finally began to work, and the number of prescriptions administered per year has since decreased.

But for many, these improvements came too late — most of those dependent on prescription opioids had already stopped taking them and moved on to cheaper, stronger drugs like heroin. In 2014, despite declines in opioid prescriptions, Ohio had the highest number of opioid overdose deaths in the country, according to a CDC report.

Recent increases in the use of fentanyl (50 times more potent than heroin) and carfentanil (100 times more potent than fentanyl) keep annual overdoses in Ohio rising at a steady rate with no sign of slowing down.

What The Recovery Village Columbus Is Doing to Help

Despite the consistent increases in overdoses in Ohio over the last decade, our state’s opioid epidemic is not a lost cause: It’s a problem that we can overcome together as Ohioans. While not everyone in Ohio has a substance use disorder, most people know at least one friend, family member or acquaintance who does.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an opioid use disorder, consider calling The Recovery Village Columbus. Our staff of compassionate professionals understand that people with substance use disorders are individuals with complex histories, not “addicts.” With patience and personalized care, we can help nearly anyone begin the process of recovery. Contact us today for more information about our patient-centered, multidisciplinary approach to a better life.