Columbia County detectives are investigating four overdose deaths in the span of six days, though preliminary evidence is pointing to a somewhat mundane explanation.
“It’s very easy for people to attribute multiple overdoses to a ‘bad batch theory’ and I don’t necessarily buy that,” said Portage Police Department Detective Lt. Daniel Garrigan, of the four deaths between Aug. 30 and Sept. 5.
The three victims, a 23-year-old Portage woman, 28-year-old Pardeeville woman, 48-year-old Lewiston woman, and 54-year-old Columbus man are not believed to have been connected or have been in similar social circles with the possible exception of one “associate” that is believed to be in common.
Over the past five years the number of overdose deaths reported by the Columbia County Medical Examiner’s Office have not shown a clear trend, with 10 in 2013, eight in 2014, six in 2015, 14 in 2016, and nine in 2017.
“It is alarming — four deaths in six days is not something we’ve seen as a county,” said Columbia County Sheriff’s Office Detective Lt. Roger Brandner. “But it is not out of line with what we’ve seen over the past several years, which should be concerning to everybody.”
Columbia County Sheriff’s Office deputies have responded to 70 overdoses so far in 2018, surpassing 2017, in which they had 69 calls, which was a reprieve from the 94 calls in 2015. There were 58 overdose calls in 2014 and 51 in 2013.
“We have had an uptick of overdose calls,” said Divine Savior Healthcare EMS Supervisor Cody Doucette. “We’ve had seven so far in the first 12 days of September.”
Once called to opioid overdoses, paramedics have needed to regularly increase the amount of the opioid-blocker naloxone, which is needed to revive a patient from an overdose.
“This has been trending this way for quite some time,” said Doucette. “I’ve been an EMT for the past 14 years and when I first started, it would only take 0.4 milligrams to 1 milligram of Narcan to bring them out of it, but now, over time it has been a slowly progressive process as the drugs become stronger.”
Many overdoses have been attributed to the use of Fentanyl, which is often combined with heroin to increase potency.
“It is a pattern that we have become accustomed to, unfortunately, and it is a big concern because of the Fentanyl in heroin,” said Brandner. “Heroin is bad enough, but then you cut it with Fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger, and of course you’re going to see more and more overdoses.”
On Wednesday at about 5:30 p.m., Portage police officers responded to another report of an overdose. A 57-year-old woman was revived and admitted to officers that she had taken heroin.
Confirming overdoses and their causes takes detective work.
Detectives are able to assemble likely scenarios based on the scene, for instance whether there are syringes present or if there are still drugs present, according to Garrigan. However that may be complicated if they arrive at a clean scene with no drugs present.
“The scale tipper is toxicology and that is upwards to six weeks,” said Garrigan, referring to the process of sending in samples to the State Crime Laboratory, which is also busy analyzing evidence from other agencies.
The Portage Police Department does not have the resources for a full-time investigator devoted to drug cases and so those cases, often long and labor-intensive, are prioritized and worked beginning with low-level drug arrests, aiming toward higher-volume for-profit drug dealers.
“It has no other way, but it has to start with street-level drug dealings with small amounts,” said Garrigan. “That is how cases are built and investigations progress. It is nearly impossible to go the other way.”
In the meantime officers are needed for school functions, traffic enforcement and all the other needs of community policing, Garrigan said. The detective division has four open death investigations — three homicide cases — that require follow-up until the court proceedings close.
“A lot of our officers didn’t grow up here and even the ones who came in have family and friends in the area and there are officers who have drug addiction in their family and have drug addiction in their neighborhoods,” said Brandner. “I don’t know how you prepare officers for that kind of trauma, except that we do have mental health counseling for officers. The drug addicted person isn’t the only victim. Their families, their neighbors, their classmates, the EMTs, the firefighters that try to revive this person are also victims of this disease. I don’t know the right answer to that.”