The Next 400: Opioid Crisis greatly impacting Cuyahoga County’s Black community, forging new partnerships to curb deaths

Cuyahoga County is on pace to have a total of more than 650 overdose deaths this year.
DkWard Quality Entertainment Group is working on a project to draw attention to the opioid...
DkWard Quality Entertainment Group is working on a project to draw attention to the opioid crisis that's impacting Cuyahoga County's Black community.(N/A)
Published: Nov. 9, 2020 at 9:39 AM EST
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - The opioid crisis in Cuyahoga County is trending in the wrong direction.

An alarming rate of overdose deaths, particularly for Black community, is forging new relationships.

“We learned just how real it is (and) how close it is,” said DaNine Ward, founder of DkWard Quality Entertainment Group. "We did the vignette project in the Ashbury community. The main thing I wanted to do was to put something out there that made you say, ‘Hey I need to care about this.’”

Ward, a local pastor, is also an accomplished writer and producer. Plays she’s written touch on topics that are often hard to discuss including drug abuse, domestic violence, depression and suicide.

Recently, the Urban Minority Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Outreach Programs (UMADOP) in Cleveland reached out to Ward to help produce a video campaign tackling the opioid crisis in the local Black community.

Ward’s team got to work filming around the city of Cleveland. UMADOP plans to use the footage for future commercial projects. "

“My project was about writing something to help curb the death by providing education about Narcan, and education about the test strips for the drugs and of course treatment is always an option,” Ward said. “I believe that the first thing anybody that’s in danger needs to know, is that someone cares.”

Ward used Black actors in familiar setting including outside a neighborhood store, inside a church and at someone’s home. She said the scripts are attention-grabbing and speak to the heart of the issue and ways to get help or help someone who’s in trouble.

Development of the final product continues and will be released at a date that’s yet to be determined.

Data from the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office indicates the county is on pace to have more than 650 overdose deaths this year- the third highest on record.

Synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil are responsible for the death in a majority of cases.

“There’s definitely an increase in death among African Americans,” said Scott Osiecki, CEO of the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS) Board of Cuyahoga County. “Right now it’s about 26-percent of the total overdose deaths are of African Americans. And just three years ago that was about 14%. The reason that is- is because fentanyl is being mixed in with other drugs such as cocaine. So, people who lets say are looking to use a stimulant, they don’t know that the fentanyl was actually in there. So a lot of times it’s a death sentence right there.”

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Law enforcement reporting that the lacing of drugs is happening because it’s cheap and easy and increases potency. 19 News asked Osiecki what impact the coronavirus pandemic may be having on the situation.

“At the beginning of the pandemic we actually seen the opioid deaths go down,” Osiecki said. “But as the orders have started lifting, more and more people are going out- we have seen that those deaths have actually begun to increase.”

Campaigns to fight drug abuse haven’t always been culturally relevant. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, including that information in its broad report on the opioid crisis in the Black community. An expert quoted in the report said, "... campaigns are white-washed and make no sense in Black communities.

“The arts are a creative way to help appeal- get down (into topics) you know,” said Ward. “They help some complicated conversations be held. When you look up on the stage or the theater or somewhere else, you see yourself. You can relate. We work really hard to present realistic, relatable characters and presentations that are sure to touch your heart.”

Ward mentioned the countless people who’ve been touched by her productions over the years, including her play 'The Blacker the Berry’ which she’s currently updating for a new debut.

“I’ve got some numbers and some facts. I remember a woman knocking on my window saying, ‘You saved my life,'" Ward recalled. “I remember a call I got from a woman who said, ‘My husband doesn’t beat me anymore. He saw your play. He sat there. He doesn’t beat me anymore.'”

Ward said, “I know the arts work. I know the arts work.”

She said society can no longer ignore the trauma many face in communities of color.

“People have been traumatized... traumatized," Ward said. “And they’ve suffered losses and didn’t know what to do with it. They’ve suffered disappointments (and) didn’t know what to do with it. I don’t know where I would be without my faith.”

Osiecki said the ADAMSHS Board has even strengthened its own campaigns to better target various demographics. He supports others who are doing the same.

“We want as many people as possible to get the message out,” he said. “Let people know that addiction is a disease and that treatment works and people recover.”

Since 2019, the Adams Board has helped to distribute more than 40,000 fentanyl test strips to community businesses and organizations including barbershops, gas stations and corner stores.

“That gives someone an opportunity to know whether they’re going to use that drug or perhaps they might use a little less to save their lives,” Osiecki said. “We want to make sure we save as many lives as possible in order for them to get treatment. They’re our mothers, our fathers, our brothers or sisters, or aunts or uncles. If a person’s life is cut short those are opportunities that are lost in our community. So we are wanting to make sure we save as many lives as possible in order for them to get treatment."


The ADAMHS Board said fentanyl test strips are always available at Circle Health Services (on the Syringe Exchange Van and in the health center), MetroHealth (on the Harm Reduction RV/Project DAWN), and Care Alliance in the clinics and through their community outreach vehicle).

A few of the grassroots locations for test strips are: Urban Kutz Barbershop, Cleveland UMADAOP, Hispanic UMADAOP, Premier Barber Studio, East Cleveland Concerned Pastors (10 Locations) distributed to Reach City Church, and Convenient Food Mart on Storer Ave.

Each test strip comes with information on how to seek treatment and other help.

“Everybody can do something to help... everybody,” Ward said. “The greatest thing you could do is something to help somebody else. That builds people.”

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