Investigators struggle to keep up as Indianapolis sets pace for overdose record

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INDIANAPOLIS — First responders and investigators are struggling to keep up with the persistent increase in overdose deaths in Indianapolis and Marion County.

Mid-year totals from the Marion County Coroner’s office show the deadly increase that coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic is continuing in 2021.

From January 1 to July 31, the coroner’s office recorded 228 overdose deaths in 2019. During that same time period in 2020, that number went up to 362. From January 1 to July 31 of 2021, there were 391 deadly overdoses, for a roughly 9% increase.

However, the 2021 total does not include more than 50 suspected overdoses that are still being investigated, pending toxicology testing.

“If those come back as positive and are ruled as accidental overdoses, we’ll actually be 23% over,” said Mallory Malczewski, budget and quality assurance deputy for the Marion County Coroner’s Office.

Malczewski described the current situation at the coroner’s office using words like “unprecedented,” “frustrating” and “exhausting.” Coupled with a record homicide rate this year, she says investigators and other staff members are struggling to keep up.

“To work shift after shift where anything from restroom breaks to be being able to eat is kind of whenever you have time,” she said.

Adding to the frustration is the impact on investigations. Normally, Malczewski says the coroner’s office works to complete a full death investigation in less than 90 days. But recently, some families are waiting nearly twice that long.

“It’s very difficult to have those conversations and to have repeated phone calls and saying, I’m sorry we don’t have the results back yet, or we don’t have them analyzed yet.”

Malczewski, who is also an investigator, says she often has to put an investigation on hold because she sometimes receives three or four new cases during a single shift.

“How do I prioritize the family that needs me in that moment on a scene for an individual that was just pronounced deceased, verses the family whose loved one died three or four months ago?” she questioned.

Indianapolis EMS Chief Dan O’Donnell says the the overdose surge is also contributing to a strain on emergency medics around the city.

“Unfortunately, we’re looking at what I would consider a crisis,” O’Donnell said. “We are seeing the numbers go, unfortunately, the wrong way, the number of overdoses.”

O’Donnell says recent gains toward emerging from the opioid epidemic were erased by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which sent many into despair and made it difficult to gain access to addiction treatment and counseling. The effect, he says, is clearly continuing.

“I think what people need to know is that we are back in a huge problem,” he said. “It’s been a very long year for our providers. They’re risking their lives, they’re running like crazy. But again, we will continue to answer that call.”

At the same time, O’Donnell points out that resources for addiction treatment and counseling are becoming more available again.

“Access to naloxone has not decreased,” he said. “You can go to any pharmacy in Indiana and pick it up, no questions asked.”

Both O’Donnell and Malczewski say the prevalence of fentanyl on the streets continues to contribute to more deaths. Five years ago, Malczewski says fentanyl was detected in about 20% of fatal overdoses. Last year, nearly 80% of deadly overdoses involved fentanyl.

“I think it’s going to get much worse before it gets better, before we have any kind of relief,” Malczewski said.

If you or someone you know is seeking help with substance abuse, here are several resources to seek help:

Hoosiers can call 211 to be connected to support services or find a regional recovery hub in their area.

Recovery Centers of America at Indianapolis offers inpatient treatment and counseling. The Willow Center in Brownsburg offers treatment and counseling. Fairbanks Recovery Center offers admissions counseling over the phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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