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01:09 - Source: CNN

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Ohio has experienced a rash of fatal drug overdoses

Good Samaritan laws among initiatives to fight the scourge

CNN  — 

Seven people died from drug overdoses in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County on Saturday, prompting the county’s medical examiner to issue a public health warning.

Fifty-two drug overdose deaths occurred in August alone, the highest such number in a given month for the county. said Chris Harris, the communications specialist for Cuyahoga County medical examiner’s office.

Three-hundred fifty people in the county have died from drug overdoses in 2016, and it is projected to have 500 fatalities caused by opioid drug overdoses by the end of the year, doubling the number from the previous year, according to Harris.

“This cluster of deaths is deeply concerning,” medical examiner Thomas Gilson said in a statement. “Although there is no clear link between the individuals, this number clearly raises the possibility of a very deadly drug in the community.”

Cleveland is in Cuyahoga County, in the northeastern part of the state.

The county and the state have experienced a record number of overdoses in the past few months caused by the same three opioids: heroin, fentanyl and carfentanil.

The drugs that caused the overdoses are still unknown and the incidents are under investigation, authorities said.

Powerful drugs

Carfentanil and fentanyl are both strong opioids that drug dealers are now mixing with heroin in order to give the drug a boost and make their supply last longer, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Fentanyl is commonly used by cancer patients for pain relief, and it is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Carfentanil is a sedative for large animals that’s not approved for human use. A version of fentanyl, this drug is 10,000 times stronger than morphine. As little as 2 milligrams of carfentanil can knock out an African elephant weighing nearly 2,000 pounds.

Law enforcement and health officials have seen the presence of carfentanil and fentanyl increase in recent months.

In August, 90 heroin overdoses that occurred within five days in western Cincinnati were linked to fentanyl. A few weeks later, Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Kode Sammarco announced that 8 deaths in the Cincinnati area were caused by the drug’s powerful counterpart, carfentanil, as well.

An opiate task force

After California, Ohio had the second-largest number of opioid-related deaths in the country in 2014, according to the Center for Disease Control.

A number of states across the country are facing a similar increase in fatal drug overdose deaths caused by opioids. Opioids were involved in 61% of all drug overdose deaths in 2014, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and fatal drug overdoses are growing at an alarming rate each year.

“If you look at the cause of death, we just don’t normally see increases like this,” Robert Anderson, the chief of the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Care Statistics at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention previously told CNN.

Ohio recently passed the Good Samaritan law, which allows people to report fatal overdoses without fear of legal consequences.

Cuyahoga County has created an opiate task force, and implemented Project D.A.W.N. in 2013, which educates people about opiate overdose signs and provides free naloxone kits to help prevent overdose fatalities.

CNN’s Jen Christensen, Sergio Hernandez, Faith Karimi and Nadia Kounang contributed to this report.