DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) — Right now, Montgomery County is averaging one overdose death a day so far this year.

While shocking, that number is half of what we saw during the height of the opioid epidemic in 2017.

That year, Cleve Baker admits he was probably one shot away from dying.

Fighting Fentanyl

Dawn Schwartz worked in Montgomery County’s probation services then. “I felt like it was a war zone because there were people constantly overdosing and dying,” she said.

The Miami Valley was ground zero of the nationwide epidemic.

Dayton Police Department Major Brian Johns has witnessed the deadly consequences of it first hand. “I’ve been to homes where there are people dead from overdoses and kids are screaming for their mother who is laying there deceased,” Johns said.

From 2016-2022, 2,472 people died of drug overdoses in Montgomery County, earning Dayton the dubious distinction as the overdose capital of America.

The drug of choice has changed according to Johns. “For a time there, it was heroin, then it came a time when it was fentanyl, and if you had heroin, you couldn’t sell it because it wasn’t strong enough. They wanted fentanyl.”

Baker said it was becoming more dangerous. “People who I used to be close to, the next day they used. They got it from the same dealer. They ended up dying.”

With the death toll rising, law enforcement realized traditional methods of policing the problem were not solving it.

“You can’t arrest your way out of fentanyl, the opioid epidemic,” Johns said succinctly.

Schwartz, who now manages the Community Overdose Action Team for Public Health, witnessed the focus shift toward treatment.

“There were just too many people,” she admits. “We had to pivot and figure out how we can help people get to the point where they are ready for treatment.”

Baker says the new approach was necessary and made an immediate impact. “There has been a shift in thinking that we just can’t police this, can’t just lock everyone up who’s an addict.”

Baker was one of the lucky ones, an overdose survivor who got help and got clean, proof the treatment approach seems to be working.

Schwarz says the improvement is clear, but it’s far from over. “I don’t think it’s accurate to say we’re winning, but we are making strides.”

The numbers back that up. Overdose deaths dropped to 316 in 2022, but Schwartz quickly counters that, saying, “That’s still 300 overdose deaths that are too many.”

Today, there is a new tool to help bring those numbers down: fentanyl test strips. Once considered drug paraphernalia that could get you arrested, Schwartz says these strips are a game-changer.

“The state of Ohio and Gov. DeWine recognized that keeping these test strips criminalized is doing more harm than good.”

Major Johns says they work. “Test strips are at least 96 to 99% effective. It doesn’t tell you how much fentanyl is in there, but it tells you fentanyl is in there.”

Public Health and law enforcement say there isn’t a “silver bullet” for winning the fight against fentanyl.

Addiction is hard, and it takes time to come to grips with it. However, fentanyl strips could be the resource that give an addict at least one more day to decide if they want treatment.

A sobering reality, Schwartz says, “They may wake up the next day and say, ‘I’m ready. I’m ready for treatment.’ Well, they can’t do that if they overdosed.”

Schwartz says we are on the downside of the epidemic as a whole, and law enforcement agrees, yet opioids continue to pour into the Miami Valley, specifically fentanyl.

Tomorrow, 2 NEWS investigates how the drugs are getting here and what the DEA is doing to stop it.